Perfect Storms

Guest post by Jeremy Cripps, Chief Executive, Children North East

In the weeks after storm Sandy flooded Manhattan it’s sobering to be reminded of the chaos that turbulent conditions can cause. The same goes for economic weather as meteorology. Children England, the national membership organisation for voluntary organisations working with children, young people and families, have published a report called ‘Perfect Storms’. The report models and provides case studies showing the cumulative impact of the financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures on children’s charities and their statutory partners. It describes two worrying and interrelated ‘perfect storms’ affecting the voluntary and public sectors, and those they support.

First the ‘Business Storm’ threatens the financial survival of charities – individual giving has remained static, the financial crisis reduced investment income, social enterprise income (e.g. running paid training for professionals) has fallen and the deep public sector funding cuts have increased competition for the grants made by trusts, foundations and the national lottery. Costs have risen too due to inflation, higher fuel bills and the costs involved in public fundraising.

Most importantly at the same time demand for services, both in the number of people seeking support and the severity of their problems, has increased dramatically. As a result, staff and volunteer numbers have fallen, reducing service capacity, while those remaining in post are increasingly suffering from burnout.

Second the ‘Locality Storm’ demonstrates these pressures are not isolated, they mirror and interact with pressures on local authority children’s services – both sectors are experiencing higher costs, reduced funding and increased demand.

The consequences are that local support arrangements are starting to break down, threatening the wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable children, young people and families. With many services rationing the support that they provide, principally through waiting lists and raised access thresholds, and others closing altogether, people in need are being pushed towards whatever support they can find. Public sector services and contracts with charities increasingly focus on crisis support at the expense of early intervention, potentially storing up further trouble for the future.

This analysis is based on discussions with Children England member organisations all over the country. It is also a true representation of the circumstances for my organisation, Children North East. Our total income for the year 2011-2012 was 25% less than the previous year, but during the year our services reached 1,033 children, and 5,751 young people, that is 65% more than the previous year. We also worked with adults in 944 families. All this is achieved by 41 part-time, 19 full-time and 6 sessional staff and 111 volunteers.

The children, young people and families coming to or referred to us have more serious difficulties than before, for example we have noticed a marked increase in the number of young people who are self-harming, talking about or attempting suicide. Increasingly it is the norm for our staff to take responsibility to coordinate other services and professionals involved with the child, young person or family. Whilst it might be expected that trained staff take on these roles as part of ‘new ways of working’, there is a serious question to be answered about what it is reasonable to expect of volunteers in these situations.

We are seeing widening gaps in the safety net of public sector provision. For example neither local authority children’s services nor NHS child psychiatry departments have provided an effective service to families of children with behaviour problems, but as both services raise referral thresholds to limit the provision and increase waiting lists to manage demand there is nowhere for those parents to go. Some of them end up with voluntary organisations like Children North East who are not commissioned to provide that type of service but do what they can anyway driven by their charitable objectives such as relief of distress or support for the vulnerable.

In effect our services are taking the place of some of what used to be done by the public sector, but at the same time funding for our services from the public sector is declining. I do not want us to mimic public services and raise our thresholds or create waiting lists because in my opinion the role of the voluntary sector is to stop people falling through the gaps in public sector services. However it is not clear what the solution is.

Children England found their members thought the scenarios described by Perfect Storms are inevitable but unintentional, they also feel that they are deep-rooted and predate the economic downturn that started in 2008, though have been exacerbated by the recession and austerity measures. They are problems of complex systems and therefore do not have straightforward solutions. Perfect Storms concludes that solutions may be found by questioning what vulnerable children and young people actually need; the role of charities in service provision; priorities for public spending; public accountability and the ownership of risk; the future role of public services as statutory powers are devolved to local levels; and training for the voluntary sector workforce.

Jeremy Cripps

Chief Executive

Children North East

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