(pic: Rod Edwards)
Outsourcing to private sector providers has long been a feature of social care in England. But should child protection be exempt from the profit motive, asks Gordon Carson
Local authorities are considering all options for future child protection service provision as they tackle an average 28% reduction in funding from central government over four years. In some areas, notably Suffolk, this has prompted proposals for a strategic shift in the role of the local authority to become an enabler, rather than a provider, of services.
There is speculation that child protection could be as open to outsourcing as any other service, though at this stage Suffolk will only say it is “in the early stages of looking at ways of delivering health and care services via local trusts”.
“It is envisaged that the trusts will be delivery organisations, with overall responsibility, democratic accountability and strategic decision-making remaining with the county council,” the council adds.
Under section 47 of the Children Act 1989, local authorities have a duty to investigate any case where a child is suspected to be suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; is the subject of an emergency protection order; or is in police protection.
However, this duty applies specifically to the decision-making role of the local authority, which could in theory outsource the investigation process to another provider.
This has not been a feature of child protection to date, other than the regular employment of independent social workers. And there is mixed opinion about the suitability of outsourcing, particularly to private providers, as a strategy for this service.
Joanna Nicolas, an independent child protection consultant, says: “It’s very risky because it weakens the chain of command and, the more people we have in the chain, the less accountability there is.
“In the world of child protection there’s so much emphasis on agencies working together but so many examples of them not being very good at it.”
Perdeep Gill, another child protection consultant, says outsourcing child protection might work in principle, especially if clear lines of accountability can be established.
She believes that small social work surgeries or social work practices, similar to arrangements for GPs, could provide better services because bureaucracy may be reduced.
However, Gill says this may not apply to emergency interventions such as section 47 investigations or emergency protection orders, where the need to go to the local authority for final approval on decisions could obstruct vital, quick decision-making.
Also, she says it may be difficult for surgery-type providers to challenge local authorities because of fears around future contracts; for example, if a council decided not to take a child into care despite the risks identified by the provider.
The experience of independent social work practices proves that mechanisms can be put in place to delegate vital children’s social care services; in the case of practices, those for looked-after children.
Pilots of this model, which was discussed in the 2006 Care Matters Green Paper, started in 2008, followed by a second group in 2010, and in March the government invited more proposals from local authorities willing to test the approach.
The previous government had to draw up new laws within the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 to introduce the pilots, and a Department for Education spokesperson says this legislation creates an exemption for pilot local authorities, enabling them to transfer decision-making to practices.
Morris Hill, an associate in the local government team of legal firm Weightmans, believes the government could adopt a similar approach if it wanted to encourage greater outsourcing of child protection.
“In the case of social work practices the government assisted local authorities as much as possible, including changing the law and providing contracts to them to help set up practices,” he points out.
The launch in March of a consultation by the Department for Communities and Local Government examining the need for more than 1,200 statutory duties placed on local authorities, including section 47, stoked concern in some parts of the sector that this is exactly what the government was looking to do.
However, doubts exist over the government’s enthusiasm for a major redrafting of child protection laws.
“They might say the Children Act 1989 needs altering – it is 22 years old – but personally I would be very surprised if they did anything relating to primary legislation,” says Trevor King, a solicitor at the Children’s Legal Centre. “The Baby P case is too raw.”
There are also doubts about the desire of local authorities, and particularly councillors and senior managers, to dilute their oversight of, and direct control over, critical functions such as child protection.
Local government expert Tony Travers says the inherent risks of child protection mean it is very likely to remain a service largely provided in-house.
“There’s no doubt that, from the work I’ve done, of all the services local authorities provide, child protection is regularly identified as the least likely to be handed over to any other organisation,” says Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics.
“No local authority believes that child protection is a responsibility which can in any sense be devolved.
“However, the service is provided, any failings would always fall back on the local authority, given recent history,” he adds, referring to the Baby Peter case. “For that reason, local authorities feel very, very strongly that they need to know what’s going on.”
Travers also says central government is unlikely to be keen for such sensitive services to be delegated to external providers.
“If ministers said councils must commission those services from Big Society providers and the local authority then did that and something went wrong, ministers would then be exposed themselves,” he says.
The sad reality may be that, whatever the delivery structure for services, there will still be occasions where children suffer severe abuse, says King.
“It’s happened before and, tragically, the next one could happen today, tomorrow or next year,” he says.
Outsourcing: pros and cons
● Potential reduction in bureaucracy and more freedom for social workers to design a service model that fits with their own experience and aspirations, as well as meeting the needs of children.
● Could help local authorities to reduce costs in tough financial times, by outsourcing services to private providers who would take over responsibility for expenses such as pension contributions.
● Rather than reducing bureaucracy, outsourcing to providers built along the lines of independent practices could create a new group of “technocrats”, says Perdeep Gill. “You will still need somebody to manage all the bureaucracy,” she adds.
● Local authorities could try to shift the blame for failures on to outsourced providers by claiming they weren’t made aware of the full circumstances of a case.
● Service providers might be unwilling to challenge local authority decisions for fear that they will lose the contracts, meaning they might take on unacceptable levels of risk.
● The division of responsibilities between a greater number of individuals and organisations could make it harder to maintain overall oversight of cases, increasing the risk of failings.
Special report on outsourcing
What do you think? Join the debate on CareSpace
Keep up to date with the latest developments in social care Sign up to our daily and weekly emails