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Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

One of the UK’s foremost child protection experts has accused the government-commissioned review of children’s social care in England of ignoring the key role of poverty in driving the dramatic rise in youngsters being taken into care

Eileen Munro, a former government adviser, warned that “hobbling restrictions” placed by ministers around the review’s terms of reference also appeared to prevent it calling for extra funding for children’s social care services.

“If you are truly trying to help children have a better childhood you have to link it to a levelling up on child poverty,” said Munro, who is emeritus professor of social policy at the London School of Economics.

Her intervention came amid unease about the scope and intentions of the “bold and wide-ranging” review announced in January by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, which takes in early years help, child protection, fostering and kinship care, and the care system.

Critics are concerned government sees the review as a way to cap the spiralling costs of tackling children’s care while seeking ways to introduce new market-style structures into the largely local authority-run system.

Munro, who was hired by then education secretary Michael Gove in 2010 to review child safeguarding practice in the wake of the “Baby P” case, told the Guardian she had discussed her fears that the year-long review ignored the underlying causes of family breakdown with the review chair, Josh MacAlister.

She said the terms of reference of the review only focused on services for children whose families were already in crisis, and while they mentioned domestic abuse, mental illness and substance abuse, they “do not show curiosity” regarding the root causes of those problems.

The review could not ignore poverty, poor housing and job insecurity, all major causes of poor parenting and poor child development, demonstrated by the increased incidence of social stress during Covid and the disproportionate numbers of children taken into care in poorer areas she said. “A truly ‘bold and broad’ review needs to look at these root causes. Even the best of services cannot neutralise the harm of poverty.”

She added: “I sent him [MacAlister] all the latest research on the impact of poverty on child development. It bothers me that the government draws attention to parental problems without seeing how poverty is such a big factor in those problems. It’s limiting the responsibility to parents instead of to how we function as a society.

“What worries me most is the [children’s services] system is totally underfunded, families are under huge strain, and wanting to make things better without guaranteeing any money – actually, explicitly saying you can’t assume there will be any more money – just seems to tie our hands around our backs”.

MacAlister told the Guardian nothing was excluded from his inquiry, and more would be revealed when he published his interim report, expected in June. “We will be publishing our case for change document this summer and it will outline why we thing so many families need support, why the number of children in care has continued to rise and what resources might be needed in the future.”

He said he was “hugely grateful” to Munro for “all the advice and support she has given me since I started this review.” Munro said her criticisms were not aimed at MacAlister, adding: “I’m just very concerned. He’s got a much, much bigger job (than I had) and he’s got all these restrictions from the government.”

The Department for Education contract signed by MacAlister explicitly states that the review’s recommendations must be affordable and that the DfE “cannot assume any additional funding from the exchequer”.

The numbers of children in care in England rose from 65,520 in 2011 to more than 80,000 at the end of March 2020, while the number of children on child protection plans increased by over half. Councils say English children’s services departments now face a funding shortfall of £800m.

Latest official figures show 4.3 million children – equivalent to about 31% of all UK children – were in poverty in 2019-20, with hundreds of thousands more expected to have fallen below the breadline during the pandemic.

“After more than 10 years of austerity creating more poverty for children and families it is crucial that this review rises to the challenge of confronting the impact of government policies which have caused so much harm,” said Ray Jones, emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University.