Trevor Philip’s has written about the St Valentine’s Day massacre when Norfolk’s ruling Conservative Cabinet pushed its budget through Council on February 14th. The February 14th budget meeting was the worst day in my near six years as a local authority councillor. Whilst campaigning, marches and protests, before Christmas and in the New Year may have saved some of the worst cuts in Adult Social Services, there are still many bad cuts for Adults and the disabled. However, on February 14th, it was children and families who came off worse, Children’s Services has done ‘even worse' by comparison.
At the February 14th budget meeting all the opposition groups tried to save the cuts to Youth Services and to early intervention work for children: amongst £60m cuts for 2011/12, vital, early intervention, services for our most vulnerable children are being cut or ‘reshaped’ out of recognition.
Two proposals in the budget were not in the Council’s Big Conversation, the public consultation on the cuts, and were introduced very late on. These were the closure of the Unthank Centre and the complete loss of the Family Group Conferencing Service (FGC).
Both provide vital services to our most vulnerable, deeply troubled children in Norfolk, children who have been abused, abandoned and neglected. They save money by working with children, parents and carers to keep families together, and prevent children coming into care. The FGC Service assists children to return to the care of their families, thereby reducing the stress on the foster care service.
Garden at Unthank Centre
Last year it saved £1.4 million and this year it will save up to £2 million. Why are the Cabinet closing such a vital service that saves this Council money? I was shocked that this service was just completely cut when it wasn’t mentioned in the Council’s Big Conversation.
A further issue is that Family Court judges may direct the authority to hold a Family Group conference, or similar process, for a child. The Council have not made it clear how they will deal with this situation in the future after the cutting the service that can deliver this, but it will cost more money now the service providing it is being cut.
The Unthank Centre saves costs in the longer term: it will be a less effective, unrecognisable service after the changes proposed for it. Last week, I went to the public meeting on the Unthank Centre. There were many experts there – mental health social workers, care workers, child protection professionals, foster carers, teachers and school governors. All these people are saying closing the Centre will destroy a very good service that has an excellent reputation, but their advice is being ignored by the County Council.
These 3 pieces of art work were created by children aged between 7 and 12 years old who attend the Unthank Family Centre. The children attended a workshop supported by centre staff and local artist Alexis Evans. The art work was exhibited on the railings of St.Peter Mancroft Church in the centre of Norwich on Sunday 13th September 2009.
The proposals to replace the Unthank Centre with mobile practitioners around the County won’t work. If you remove the special space provided by the Centre, then you have ruined the service. That secure, reliable place is so helpful to give security to families dealing with very difficult issues. Get rid of it and this special service that has helped so many Norfolk children will be gone for ever.Further, the management posts are needed allow the family social workers to operate safely and in a focussed way. It is well known that if there are not managers to provide leadership and direction, to manage referrals consistently and to provide supervision, then the family therapy work will suffer and be less effective. This amounts to a significant qualitative impact to this frontline service. Therapists working with very difficult situation are likely to suffer more ‘burn out’ too without the expert supervision provided by the Centre.
What the Council propose instead is a poor imitation of the Unthank Centre and a significant qualitative impact to this frontline service. David Cameron’s reassurances that Coalition cuts would not damage frontline services ring hollow in Norfolk after this.Even the Tory Government policy is that helping children early pays off. It costs less in the long run and leads to better mental health later in life. The FGC service pays for itself financially by just avoiding a few children from entering care. Of course, the long term humanistic, non-financial benefits are greater, and this sort of early intervention is consistent with Government and recent policy thinking. The Conservative led government acknowledges the long term benefits in terms of mental health in the recent‘No Health without Mental Health’ Policy Paper where support research shows that:
‘..many of the interventions from childhood extend into adult life. Total gross savings over 25 years have been estimated at £9,288 per child and thus exceed the average cost of the intervention by a factor of around eight to one.’
The Allen Review (2011), Munro review (2011) on Child Protection, and Frank Field's Poverty Review (2011) all emphasise the importance of early intervention too.
When cutting these services, the Council not only causes hardship, but also looses money. We can only assume they are part of the ideological attack on public services that underlies what the Tories are doing rather than what they say.The Unthank Centre was scrapped despite a petition with 2300 signatures being handed to the County Council Cabinet collected in a very short time since the cut was not in the Big Conversation.
I think these cuts are incomprehensible as they defy logic, when, with Care costs soaring, they should save the Council balance sheet over £1m next year if kept. Green Party councillors tried repeatably at the February 14th council meeting to save these services. We proposed an immediate, cross party, review be carried out on child protection and wellbeing before implementing these changes, but the ruling Conservative administration turned it down.
These vital services can still be saved without further cost to the council as one of them saves enough to fund both of them for subsequent years. We urge concerned members of the public to write to the Council to call for this review to happen urgently – I hope that Norfolk will prove to be a ‘listening council’ that its leader, Councillor Derrick Murphy, claimed it to be on February 14th.
Graphics are reproduced from the Unthank Family Centre Annual Report 2010 published by Norfolk County Council