A LABOUR councillor has accused private companies of charging “extortionate” prices to home vulnerable children after the issue was highlighted by some of the UK’s leading children’s charities.

Two recent reports by the Children’s Society, Barnardo’s, Action for Children, NSPCC and the National Children’s Bureau has analysed the impact 10 years of austerity has had on children’s services, and how this is now being exacerbated the coronavirus pandemic.

The report says COVID-19 has “radically changed the landscape of children’s services”.

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“The response to the pandemic has shone an unprecedented light on the people working tirelessly to protect and support children, but also highlighted, and exacerbated, the strains on the system as it responds to perhaps the biggest social and economic crisis in living memory,” the report says.

“The impact of this crisis has the potential to be deep and long-lasting.”

One of the key concerns highlighted in the report is about escalating costs of care placements – including both residential care and fostering placements.

The report says limited marketplace availability is forcing local authories to use independent agencies, some of which are racking up huge profits.

The high cost of this is also driving some local authorities to rely on their reserves to fund the placements.

There are around 500 looked-after children in St Helens, placing one of the biggest pressures on the council’s budgets.

Since 2010/11 the council’s core funding has been cut by £90 million per year.St Helens Star: St Helens Town HallSt Helens Town Hall

This funding cut, along with other grant reductions that have specifically affected children’s services, means that funding for children’s services has reduced by £19 million.

Despite this reduction in funding, the costs that the council has to meet to look after children in its care have risen by almost £15 million per year since 2010/11.

“There are a number of factors which have contributed to this increase in cost, the fact that we have more children and young people in care obviously contributes to the rising cost,” said Cllr Nova Charlton, cabinet member for protecting young people.

“However, another area which the report highlights is the limited availability in the market place for care placements, which has drastically pushed up costs.

“Private companies are making huge profits by charging extortionate prices to care for children and young people.

“I am a firm believer in how a society treats its most vulnerable – whether children, the infirm or the elderly – is always the measure of its humanity.

“We have statutory obligations to meet for those that we provide care for, but there are also those children and families that are on the edge of care who also need our support.”

St Helens Star: Cllr Nova Charlton, St Helens Council's cabinet member for protecting young people Cllr Nova Charlton, St Helens Council's cabinet member for protecting young people

Following repeated delays, the government is expected to announce later this year how much funding is to be made available to local authorities for services as part of the Spending Review.

The UK’s leading children’s charities said this is a ” a vital opportunity”,  warning that without additional investment, local authorities will continue to struggle to respond to the needs of children in their communities.

The charities’ analysis shows that between 2010/11 and 2018/19, funding for children’s and young people’s services has fallen by 23 per cent, from £9.7 billion to £7.4 billion in real terms.

The estimated funding per child and young person has also fallen from £571 in 2010/11 to £425 by 2018/19.

Early intervention services, which used to benefit from ring-fenced funding, has seen funding cut from £2.8 billion to £1.1 billion.

That is a reduction of £1.7 billion funding per year, between 2010/11 and 2018/19, around a 60 per cent drop.

The analysis also found a noticeabSt Helens Star: le divide between the North and the South of England in terms of reductions in funding.

The three regions constituting the North of England have all seen a reduction of between a quarter and a third between 2010/11 and 2018/19.

The analysis also shows that there are distinct variations in the scale of cuts based on levels of deprivation.

Since 2010/11, the most deprived local authorities have seen more than twice the size of cut to funding as the least deprived areas.

“Having read the report it just confirms the inequalities that boroughs like ours are facing, as it states there is a direct correlation between decreases in funding and increases in need,” Cllr Charlton said.

“There is a disparity between the funds available and the needs of the local area.”

She added: “I wish I could say that I am surprised and shocked by what I have read, however the reality is this is what years of cuts to funding has done to boroughs like ours.

“Taken together, these result in significant budget pressures for the council.

“The impact of COVID-19 is likely to mean further financial pressures for councils, rather than an easing of them.

“That said we have brilliant staff who are rising to the challenge of supporting our most vulnerable.

“Innovative practices have been adopted throughout the council in order to carry on working during the pandemic.”

To date, St Helens Council has received around £11.4 million in emergency funding to help respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

This is part of £3.2 billion provided to local authorities by the governing, which the charities say has “simply served to prop up the response to the crisis”.

The council estimates the loss of income from coronavirus up to September is £37 million, which will leave £25 million funding “black hole” unless the government steps in to help.

The UK’s leading children’s charities has told the government that local areas must have the resources they need to support their children after COVID-19, according to the likely level of need and funding available in each area.

The have also said the £2.2 billion per year lost from funding for children and young people’s services over the last decade should be reinstated, with the government ensuring this is delivered in such a way as to facilitate a “rebalancing” of spending between early and late intervention.St Helens Star: Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo’sJaved Khan, chief executive of Barnardo’s

Javed Khan, chief executive  of Barnardo’s, believes there will be a “massive increase” for support in the years ahead and says the government must step in.

Mr Khan said: “We have long warned about the ‘perfect storm’ facing children’s social care, and the gap between demand and resource will widen further as a result of coronavirus.

“Even before the lockdown children were facing growing challenges, from knife crime and gangs, to cyberbullying and online grooming.

“Now there is a new wave of ‘hidden’ children, falling into poverty, experiencing domestic abuse and tipping the existing crisis in mental health into catastrophe.

“We know there will be a massive increase in demand for support, with the effects of the pandemic felt for years to come.

“But the overstretched system cannot cope, and the government must step in to fund vital early intervention services, so families get the help they need before reaching crisis point.”