Private malfunction

Twenty-odd years ago – before the child abuse issue erupted in
north Wales and threw into stark relief the problems of
accountability in local authorities – I wrote a dissertation on the
drawbacks and dangers of privatising social work because, even
then, services were beset by stealth cuts which could have only one

Government is now shamelessly dismantling the public service
infrastructure, drawing the private sector into transport,
utilities, health, education, social services and even policing –
all of which should remain the state’s business – and introducing
market forces and the profit motive where neither has a place. As
Richard Morrison commented in The Times (13 June) on the
subject of preventable urban decay, “brutal financial arguments
prevailed over broader social, environmental and aesthetic

Too often the arguments themselves are flawed. Far from saving
money, engaging the private sector involves spending vast amounts
of public funds upfront on incentives and investment; more goes on
underwriting returns far into the future.

The true financial burden is never-ending, from mothballing
existing fixed resources to make way for the new, down to
redesigning logos and reprinting letterheads. Reorganisation always
exacts a high price, and each time government tinkers with existing
structures which, although far from perfect, work well enough (the
poll tax was a prime example), billions are squandered.

Then, inevitably taxation rockets to refill the coffers while
services degenerate exponentially. For example, take the recent
case of road accident victim Rachel King, who was reported as
needing a scan. NHS waiting time is 80 weeks but, by paying
£983 to the hospital’s self-pay unit, she may be seen by the
same staff and use the same scanner – bought with public funds – in
only two weeks. This illustrates the deeply inequitable and
unacceptable outcome of so-called public-private alliances and
exposes the way chunks are cut from limited public resources to
guarantee the private operator’s slice of cake.

When local authorities and the NHS had established workforces,
year-on-year expenditure on staffing, their biggest outlay, was
predictable. On the opposite side of the question, staff also knew
where they stood. Today, with little or no job security for anyone
and professional principles sacrificed to “efficiency”, morale is
at an all-time low and so chronic are staffing shortfalls that
hospitals and social services cannot function without buying in
agency personnel, at crippling cost.

According to Unison’s latest research, 90 per cent of the public
deeply opposes not-so-creeping privatisation and, while it may be
overly cynical to suggest that government consciously engineered
infrastructural collapse to justify divesting apparently
intractable problems, “progress” seems as unstoppable as a runaway
train. Social work garners little public sympathy and its total
restructuring, driven in no small part by scandal, avoidable
disaster and aversion to internal policing, will be the next to
hurtle down the line.

Introducing mechanisms to license social workers was a genuine step
in the right direction – except that the mechanisms are already in
crisis. Too many fingers in the pie, too many bureaucratic
procedures and too little expertise have left qualified workers
unlicensed and technically unemployable. In my view, making social
workers independent of primary employers and creating a body of
self-employed professionals working to contract would be courting
complete disaster. At present, employers are responsible for
organisation, regulation, referral, resource allocation, cost
management, monitoring, insurance – all crucial to a functioning
service. Removing them, as the education experience showed, creates
a vacuum, into which flood innumerable, overstaffed and
under-experienced agencies with enormous overheads.

In risk-prone activities, such as policing, health and social work,
lines of accountability must be crystal clear. Parcelling out or
otherwise fragmenting accountability significantly increases risk,
as the underlying structural incoherence which resulted in Victoria
Climbie’s murder so tragically proved. Her case management is dire
proof that too many cooks poison the broth and, when death ensues,
that no one will admit blame.

Private sector survival depends on making money; protecting assets
is part of the process. Social work has no assets, just multiple
liabilities in the shape of needy clients, and its privatisation
would dangerously compromise their already fragile welfare. In
addition, the more remote the managing agency, the easier it is to
obfuscate, deny bad practice, endlessly pass the buck and close

In Victoria Climbie’s case, every public service professional who
failed her was identifiable, yet only her front-line social worker
took the rap.

Alison Taylor is a novelist and senior child care

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