If ministers wish to understand a changing Britain, they would do well to talk to Jess.
As a teenager in the early 2000s, life with her parents was hard. By the age of 15, Jess was homeless and sleeping anywhere she could: her gran’s, a canal boat, even a shopping centre fire escape. The trauma of it all triggered severe mental health problems and soon she was regularly self-harming. In the end, she tried to take her own life. Ask Jess what caught her and it can be boiled down to a safety net: Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs) for mental health support, and a place at a specialist youth hostel.
With the right support around her, she met her partner Dale and eventually had two children of her own. Again, it was local services that helped her stay afloat – this time, in the shape of her neighbourhood children’s centre in Warwickshire, one of the thousands of SureStarts to open up across the country pre-2010 thanks to the Labour government. Jess’s own childhood had left her unsure what a family should be like – “I hadn’t the foggiest about bringing up a child,” she says – but the centre gave her a helping hand, from playgroups and parenting help to speech therapy for her eldest boy.
Now 30, she’s emphatic about the difference it all made to her life. “Children’s services made me who I am today,” she says. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have that support when I was young, and I’m certain my kids would have been taken into care without the help I’ve had as a parent.”
Fast forward to today and child support services are in crisis, with research by the UK’s “big five” children’s charities this week showing that funding for services for children and young people in England has fallen by almost a third since austerity began in 2010. That’s equivalent to £3bn. Or 1,000 closed children’s centres, 700 shut youth clubs, and more.
This isn’t simply about bricks and mortar, of course, but something altogether deeper. You could call it a disintegrating social fabric. At the same time as early years and child protection services are dismantled, the same is happening across the board to young people. The youth mental health services Jess relied on as a teenager are now at breaking point. Youngsters with special educational needs are shut out of schools, while their respite centres close.
Children’s services are hardly the only area to see catastrophic cuts in recent years, but they do perhaps provide the starkest warning. Near-bankrupt councils are currently buckling under the strain of families in crisis: since the arrival of benefit cuts, insecure housing, and a squeezed child social care system, all on top of the closure of youth services, the number of children being taken into care is at its highest level for a decade. Legal and social experts repeatedly trace this back to growing poverty and shrinking support.
As ever, it’s those that need help the most who are targeted to have it removed; funding for child services in the most-deprived authorities has fallen almost twice as fast as in the least-deprived councils, even though the poorest areas have the highest number of children taken into care. Kids’ lives are being tossed away – and for what?
Since the global economic crash, Conservative politicians have just endlessly repeated one clear answer: to get the deficit down. It is a mantra so ingrained in rightwing ideology that barely an hour after leaving the party last week, Anna Soubry was lauding George Osborne’s cuts as “necessary”, adding she thought the coalition had done a “marvellous job”.
On Thursday, chancellor Philip Hammond will yet again announce if he’s on course to hit his latest deficit forecast. Like Soubry, such a focus not only ignores the human impact of a decade of cuts, but the sheer scale of economic damage to which these targets have contributed. Research by the New Economics Foundation last week confirmed that the Treasury’s austerity policies have resulted in slower growth every year since 2010. The NEF say cuts have left the economy £100bn smaller than it would otherwise have been, with the overall impact of spending decisions leaving the average household £3,629 a year worse off in 2018-19.
It is a skewer to the great lie of the last decade – that cuts, no matter how painful, were prudent economic management. The impact of this ideological experiment will not be felt by the Osbornes or Soubrys of the country, of course, but are weights locked around the ankles of families who are already overwhelmed.
Jess puts it better than I could. “So many struggling children and families are simply not going to be able get the support I had. How can we think that’s OK?”
• Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist