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Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has launched her third annual Vulnerability Report with a call on the next Prime Minister to put the billions they have promised for income and corporation tax cuts towards mending broken childhoods. The Commissioner argues that Boris Johnson’s income tax plans and Jeremy Hunt’s corporation tax plans – estimated by the IFS to be £9bn and £13bn a year – should instead be used to invest up to £10bn a year as part of a ten-year plan to rebuild services for the most vulnerable children and end high-cost, crisis-led provision.

This year’s Children’s Commissioner’s vulnerability reports estimate there are 2.3 million children in England growing up with a vulnerable family background, including those with parents with mental illnesses, addiction problems or domestic violence. Of these, 1.6m receive either patchy or no support at all, including 830,000 children who are ‘invisible’ to services. Around 128,000 children from a vulnerable family background are receiving the most intensive forms of statutory support, such as being in care or on a child protection plan.

All the vulnerabilities identified can pose a risk to children’s wellbeing and long-term life chances. Many of these children start school significantly below the expected level of development, and their progress tends to be lower on average, meaning that they have a higher risk of leaving school without qualifications. In addition, they are more likely to have Special Educational Needs and mental health issues, which can also make them more susceptible to gang violence or exploitation. The Children’s Commissioner points out that there are many interventions which can help these children by breaking the cycle of family disadvantage, but a failure to provide them early enough means millions of children are let down.

A child in the most intensive residential placements costs on average £192,000 a year to look after.

The vulnerability reports are published alongside new data on spending on vulnerable children. This work – the first time anyone has looked in depth at what councils spend on children – shows a system that is spending increasingly high amounts on a very small number of children with acute needs: a quarter (25%) of the amount councils spend on children now goes on the 1.1% of children who need acute and specialist services – such as children in care. A child in the most intensive residential placements costs on average £192,000 a year to look after.

In one local authority looked at by the Children’s Commissioner, ten children are costing 20% of the entire children’s services budget.

Anne Longfield launched the research with a speech challenging Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt to turn around the life chances of millions of highly vulnerable children by dealing with issues like inadequate children’s mental health support, rising school exclusions, children being groomed into criminal gangs, poor educational outcomes for children growing up in disadvantaged areas and insufficient funding for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities.

With the Local Government Association and HCLG Select Committee both warning it will cost £3bn a year for over-stretched children’s services just to stand still, the Children’s Commissioner will say that the next Spending Review should be an opportunity to restore and build new services that tackle problems early.

Families need support from before birth and throughout childhood

She argued that children and their families need support from before birth and throughout childhood, and that without this help children can fall behind in school, become disengaged and even end up caught up in gang violence or dropping out of the school system. It can also have a huge impact on their health. Recent work by the IFS has shown the impact of children’s centres, which cut visits to hospital and worked particularly well for the most disadvantaged children. To really tackle the wider harm caused to the most vulnerable children, the Children’s Commissioner will call for a properly evidence-based strategy that does not just wait for problems to hit before intervening, including:

She also argued that the estimated £8bn a year cost of scrapping tuition fees in Labour’s 2017 manifesto could be used to radically improve children’s early years.

In her speech launching the report, Anne Longfield said:

“We know enough about the devastating impact on childhood and on lifetime prospects of a poor start. Tackling the scale of the problem will require strong leadership from centraI government, capital investment in institutions to help our most vulnerable children, a 10-20 year investment in family and child support, commitments and targets to identify and support children’s mental health needs and those of their parents.

“I want to challenge the contenders for the Conservative leadership and the keys to No 10 what they intend to do about this. I’ve heard them talk about runways, immigration, Islamophobia, even model buses – but not about children. They should. Anybody’s child can need a SEND assessment; or some mental health support; or speech and language therapy. And anybody’s child can meet, on the streets or in the park, a marginalised, angry, excluded teenager carrying a knife.

“I’ve heard contenders for the Conservative leadership pledge corporation tax cuts amounting to £13bn, higher NI thresholds costing £11bn, a raised threshold for the higher income tax rate which would cost £9bn. Labour’s promise to abolish tuition fees will cost around £8bn – but where is the promise to the children who might hope that one day they too will go to university? Without the kind of help I’m proposing today, millions of them have very little chance of getting there.

“All of this is money that could be spent on getting millions of children back on their feet and boosting their life chances.

“Our initial calculation suggests it might cost in the region of £10bn per year to fix this broken system. It might be more, it might be less, but what I do believe is it’ll save money in the long term. The cost of social chaos is immense.

“So I want to throw down the gauntlet today to whoever is next Prime Minister, and to the Opposition parties as they prepare general election manifestos and ask: what are you going to do about this?”

Read her full speech, or watch Anne Longfield launch the report

Some of the other main findings in today’s vulnerability reports include:

The report also shows how some vulnerabilities have become more severe in recent years:

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