Kathy responds to Quiet Crisis, the Lloyds Bank Foundation report on local authority spending on disadvantage

Since childhood I’ve always loved pondering the classic existential philosophy question: if a tree falls down in a forest and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make any sound? More recently though, I’ve been wondering how whole councils could fall down bankrupt when millions of us are around to hear it, see it and feel it, and yet it makes so little political noise. Questions like “how could this happen?”, “where else could this happen?”, “who is paying the price?” and “what on earth happens now?” should, surely, be consuming our airwaves, headlines and political debates.

There is a huge well-documented crisis in council funding and across the critical social care services they are responsible for; a catalogue of thorough, well-evidenced reports about it by charities, the NAO, and many academics; and we are many years down the road of widespread sustained campaigning about it. And yet it can still be dubbed a #SilentCrisis – as the Centre for Social Justice did last month - or a #QuietCrisis as our friends at Lloyds Bank Foundation have titled their excellent and damning report on how the crisis is hitting the most vulnerable people in the poorest areas hardest, released today.

They are, of course, right. As someone who’s been shouting, offering alternative solutions, campaigning, and raising the impact of council cuts on children in every Whitehall meeting, every conference speech, every article and consultation response and with every tweet I can muster, I know that this crisis is indeed still ‘quiet’ in our nation’s collective awareness. I certainly haven’t been alone in shouting about it either, but we’re all at risk of getting hoarse from yelling into the oncoming gale force winds of the political media storm that is Brexit. It feels like that noisy storm is drowning out almost all other voices and issues.

The Quiet Crisis report, in which NPI has analysed the government’s own data, adds to the substantial body of evidence on council cuts and social care impacts, by drawing out a distinctive set of findings and concerns for the most economically disadvantaged communities and the most vulnerable of all their residents. Social care, in its broadest definition, is pretty much everything that’s not education, health or criminal justice! It encompasses personal care and specialist services for disabled children and their families; council child protection and wider social work teams; children’s homes and elderly care homes; domiciliary care and supported housing; foster carers and women’s refuges; homeless hostels and domestic abuse services. Social care really is the Cinderella public service – it doesn’t garner the nationwide love and pride that the NHS does; it doesn’t get used by every family, the way that schools and GPs do; it doesn’t get special budget protection in Spending Reviews because of the feared electoral backlash.

But social care is a public service that can literally make life worth living when it’s done well for the many millions who need it. Conversely, poor social care can makes life a living hell if delivered inhumanely, rationed out, done on the cheap, or if it’s completely withdrawn. And social care is not a purely individualised service, like medication for an illness – social care professionals and volunteers offer and build relationships and create bonds between people, for example, by opening their family homes to look after children in need, or bringing hot meals and a friendly conversation into a lonely elderly person’s home. When the social care support system within a community is corroded and cut, it has an impact on the whole community and its sense of cohesion and collective wellbeing.

Unlike schools, the NHS, courts or the police, all of which have national budgets delegated downwards, all social care duties are held solely by councils without any clear public funding commitments to pay for them from the Treasury. So when national government decided in their Spending Reviews in 2010, and again in 2015, to steadily and steeply cut the ‘formula grant’ to councils over the course of this decade, those cuts were always going to end up hitting and hurting the people in need of social care. They claim it’s not their policy or intention to cut social care at all, they blame councils for their local decisions – tell us it’s inefficient councils’ fault if they can’t manage their cuts, if they can’t raise enough local funds, can’t keep their services open or have recruitment crises in care staff and social work. In response to today’s report, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “Local authorities are responsible for their own funding decisions and we have made £200bn available to councils up to 2020 for local services including those for children and young people”

But this kind of statement just can’t keep going unchallenged – it is simply outsourcing their responsibility for the cuts they’ve forced onto councils. How could anyone reasonably expect any council cut by over 50% to be able to retain all the capacity and quality of social care services it had before? It’s a mathematical impossibility – and so the price of that cut could only be paid by the people who rely on social care. The Quiet Crisis report’s use of the government’s own data shows that they have all the evidence available to them already: they know full well that their savage cuts are being borne by the most vulnerable people in our society.

I may be hoarse from shouting into the wind, but we have to keep raising our voices about this dark and deepening crisis. At Children England we will be submitting our call for a Children Act Funding Formula to the Treasury, who have an open invitation to organisations and the general public, to tell them what November’s Budget should include. You may, like me, wonder how much impact an e-submission is really likely to make on the Budget (and we are, of course, pursing many different routes to press the case for it too). But I’d urge everyone who cares about children and families, their local community services and the brilliant staff and volunteers in social care across the country, to make a submission too. As individuals shouting into the virtual ether it may feel too quiet, too small an act to make any difference. But what if all our voices, all our submissions, combined to create a noise they couldn’t ignore? A noise to drown out Brexit for a brief but vital moment?! Come on...we won’t know unless we all try!