Outgoing children’s commissioner Anne Longfield has delivered a stinging criticism of central government’s approach to helping the nation’s most vulnerable young people and families in her final speech before stepping down from the role.
Longfield was particularly critical of the Treasury for failing to take a holistic view of funding for services used by children and families because of departmental priorities that resulted in ongoing “siloed” approaches to cross-cutting issues.
She was also highly critical of the £1.5bn funding proposed to make up for education lost during the pandemic to date, and warned that if the government’s “levelling up” agenda was to be seen as more than a slogan it would need to be focused on outcomes for young people.
Longfield, who steps down as children’s commissioner at the end of this month, said her experience from six years in the role had been that that the whole machinery of government conspired to view children as statistics rather than individuals.
“The Treasury, quite rightly, expects all spending to be supported by cost-benefit analysis, but it also uses silo thinking to count the costs and benefits, which I believe consistently discriminates against children and families,” Longfield said at a virtual event this morning.
“Children and families are the recipients of multiple services… but the Treasury has consistently refused to undertake analysis of the cumulative impact of multiple spending decisions on families.
“When I asked the Treasury to explain how they connect these dots, I have to say that I get lost in a world of bureaucratic jargon.”
Longfield said investment in particular services overseen by one department clearly delivered beneficial outcomes in others.
“Investing in children’s centres or family hubs or parenting programmes can lead to improved educational outcomes, behaviour and mental health and ultimately better employment,” she said.
“But the NHS, the police and the DWP – which reap the benefits – don’t provide the funding because it’s not their job.”
The children’s commissioner said that while the Treasury could bridge those silos, “too often” it did not.
“Instead I’m told the Treasury is looking to reduce revenue spending and focus on capital and investment, as if spending on early years or children’s mental health is not an investment in the future,” she said.
“The IFS has estimated that the long-term cost of learning loss caused to the economy by the pandemic will be £350bn, but the Treasury has committed just £1.5bn to in-school catch-up, while giving tens of billions of pounds to other sections of the economy.
“All this shows is institutional bias against children in my view. Whatever the data, whatever the outcomes, the successful interventions, sadly the system still says ‘no’.”
Longfield added that after decades of working with young people, she had come into contact with many officials she wanted to pay tribute to. But she said the institutions they worked in were poorly focused to help the young people most in need of assistance.
“The machinery of government means that so many of those who are responsible for decisions about children’s lives don’t get to meet them,” she said.
“Instead, the government machine seems to view them as remote concepts of data points on an annual return. And this is how children fall through the gaps, because too often people in charge of the systems they need simply don’t see and understand their world.”
Longfield said it was “impossible to overstate” how damaging the pandemic had been for many children, particularly those who were already disadvantaged before it struck.
However, she said that while Covid-19 was the biggest challenge to society in 70 years, it was also “an opportunity to reflect and rebuild”.
“Our NHS and our scientists have shown us repeatedly how we can take on enormous challenges and succeed,” she said.
“My argument is that we now need to do the same for children. 'Building back better' must mean rethinking our priorities and the way we care for children in this country.
“To do that, we must be honest about the scale of the challenge and face the tough questions about the gaps that we know exist.”
Longfield said the government's promise to "build back better" after the pandemic and its levelling-up agenda would just be slogans until they focused on the needs of children.
She urged the prime minister to look to the United States to see what was possible.
“President Biden is proposing a huge package of tax credits and benefits aimed squarely at families with children,” she said.
“This is projected to halve child poverty in just a year. They know that children are at the heart of our future economic success.”
CSW asked HM Treasury for its response to Longfield’s observations. It referred the query to a pan-government response put out by the Department for Education.
The response said it was “misleading to suggest that there was any kind of bias” at the Treasury and pointed to funding totalling more than £4.8bn for services connected with children’s social care, including £400m committed to the Shared Outcomes Fund for cross-cutting projects.
It added that ministers and officials across Whitehall departments had “a firm commitment to protecting the best interests of children and understanding their need”.
The response said civil servants routinely met and engaged with those impacted by their policies and services, and that many had personal experience of the services being run, whether as foster parents, apprentices, school governors or care leavers.
A government spokesperson said protecting vulnerable children had been "at the heart" of its response to the pandemic.
“That’s why we have enabled the most vulnerable children to continue attending school in person, while providing laptops, devices and data packages to those learning at home and ensuring the most disadvantaged children are fed and warm,” they said.
“We have also driven forward crucial reform in adoption, in the care system, in post-16 education and in mental health support – and our long-term catch up plans and investment of over £1bn will ensure we make up for lost time in education over the course of this parliament.
“Anne Longfield has been a tireless advocate for children, and we’re grateful for her dedication and her challenge on areas where we can continue raising the bar for the most vulnerable.”
This story was updated at 15:30 on 17 February 2021 to include a more detailed version of the government's response to Anne Longfield's comments