By Will Horwitz
“Gemma has been a carer for as long as she can remember. From the moment she wakes up, and even throughout the night, she helps her mum care for her younger brother, Matthew, who has undiagnosed physical disabilities.”
“[At night] I just jump up as soon as I can and deal with him,” she says. “I get up really, really early, before everyone else. The other morning it was at quarter past five, ’cause I had maths homework to do. Then I make my mum’s coffee and the breakfasts, and I go and get my mum up and then my brothers. My little brother’s the hardest to get up… Sometimes breakfast’s not there, so you have to go and buy something from the shop and then walk to school.”
This is how the first story in Action for Children’s This is our Life report, released today, begins. The charity, whose Chief Executive Dame Clare Tickell sits on our Early Action Taskforce, decided in 2010 to follow the lives of 12 children and young people over the lifetime of this parliament. Each year we hear how they’re getting on, in the context of a broader analysis of the impact of spending decisions on vulnerable children and families, which Action for Children have called The Red Book.
The Red Book 2012, released this week, is as stark as last year’s. Seventy percent of Action for Children service managers report seeing an increase in the severity of issues facing families over the last six months. Forty seven percent say youth services in their area have been scaled back. And many have had to limit eligibility for existing projects: “We have to cater for the greatest need much more, so those who have a lower level of need are missing out.”
Like 14 year old Gemma in fact, who obviously enjoys her young carers group:
“You meet people that go through the same kind of thing and you connect with them in ways you wouldn’t connect with other people. So it helps you make new friends as well. It makes me feel better, sort of independent…I wanna be a children’s doctor when I’m older.”
But funding is tight, eligibility is squeezed, and Gemma has had to stop going. Her movingly generous response: “I’m thinking, well, ’cause I’m not going it’s giving other people a chance now. That’s how I think of it.”
The report expresses particular concern over a gradual erosion of these preventative services, as increasingly scarce resources are concentrated on those in greatest need, running the ambulances at the bottom of the cliff while the fences at the top gradually disintegrate.
The report points the finger at statutory duties which force local authorities to fund acute services; with no counterweight meagre resources inevitably cluster around the most serious situations. It recommends a statutory duty to fund early intervention services, to redress the imbalance.
And it suggests that the government and opposition come together to afford early intervention special long term funding status, outside the hurly-burly of three year spending reviews which distort incentives and disrupt services which depend on continuity and stability for success.
Both these ideas are exactly right to grapple with the fact that despite promising rhetoric and widespread support early intervention is losing not gaining resource. Rhetoric is plainly not enough. Removing the grittier barriers – bad incentives, short spending periods, unbalanced statutory duties – is needed to achieve a meaningful shift. The Early Action Taskforce’s next report, due out in November, will to get further grip on some of these.