Children England responds to the Lords Public Services Committee report A critical juncture for public services: lessons from COVID-19

We warmly welcome the report of the Lords Committee on how public services responded to the pandemic, which takes the necessary wide view of not only the services - local, national, voluntary, public and private - but also people and communities who rose, in spite of their own constraints, to help each other in new but profoundly human ways. 

It is important that the inquiry has recognised the voluntary sector as a vital part of community resilience, while also intrinsically respecting the wisdom that local charities can offer to national decision-making. Although not mentioned overtly, trust has been missing from what the report rightly characterises as overly centralised government decision-making - trust in local organisations and communities to understand and address local challenges together. We believe that the place-based approach endorsed in the report is necessary if we are to truly address inequalities and give children the voice in their communities that they tell us they need.

As the Committee highlights, public services entered the crisis with much-depleted resources and procurement processes that have been shown not to be fit for purpose if we are to maintain responsive, people-centred support networks. We agree that “The pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink how central Government funds and supports local services.” The budgets of local authorities and charities alike are in many areas close to breaking point, and to nurture the impressive partnerships the report celebrates, central government must fully and sustainably resource all public services, whoever delivers them. 

We are pleased to see the Committee relegate the false imperatives of contracted KPIs, competition and short-term funding allocations in favour of social value, partnership and sustainable grant funding. This is what communities need from their public service providers, and what charities need if they are to be recognised for their unique expertise and supported to give their practitioners autonomy in working with local families. We encourage the Cabinet Office to go further and make recent commissioning flexibilities the rule rather than the exception, and Whitehall departments to lead by example in funding through grants rather than contracts by default. 

Vulnerable children have, as the report warns, been invisible to services and all too often to policy makers. Even as schools and services re-open, children struggling with the transition are unlikely to be able to access immediate support for their or their families’ wellbeing, as existing capacity in mental health services and other support was already retrenched to dangerously high thresholds. We welcome the report’s recognition that children’s wellbeing depends not only on school staff, who are persevering under unprecedented conditions, but on a network of practitioners including school-based mental health support and community hubs where families can access free, non-stigmatising help and connections. We urge the government to resource mental health services so that all children, not only those in the most acute distress, can get help when they need it. 

Children have told us through our ChildFair State Inquiry that it is not appropriate for schools to focus purely on academic or exam-driven attainment: they want to explore practical, creative and social skills and they need a more supportive school culture that nurtures wellbeing and individuality. Schools must address the inequalities in education that lockdown has opened up, as the Committee says, but we urge government to help schools prioritise the social and emotional recovery and development of children, rather than exacerbating the distress caused by the pandemic by setting ambitions for academic catch-up. 

The Lords Committee clearly appreciates the risks to children of underfunded and fragmented services, staffed by dedicated but constrained practitioners and planned by leaders anxious about future funding cycles. To keep children safe and thriving, the report rightly calls for collaboration across departments and between sectors so that public services can take a holistic and nuanced view of children’s lives; and for commissioning that empowers communities and practitioners to do the same. Local authorities and the many partners who have contributed to public service during the pandemic will strive to maintain the partnerships and innovations developed under pressure but they cannot continue to operate in crisis mode. Now it is time for central government to reflect on this learning, and use upcoming reviews of procurement, council funding and social care to create and resource the conditions for brilliant public service to flourish. 

The voluntary sector has collaborated at an unprecedented level to understand the pressures facing charities and the people we support. Children England has contributed to two sets of briefings and proposals that provide government with strong consensus on what children, and the charities who form a vital pillar of their communities, need from their leaders in order to recover and thrive:

By Chloe Darlington, Policy and Communications Manager at Children England