The government’s plans to let councils outsource key children’s services have been both attacked as a plan to privatise child protection and defended as an attempt to give social workers the freedom they need to innovate in practice.
One thing is certain – the six week consultation on the proposals has just closed (the last response was accepted yesterday) and the verdicts from social workers, directors, children’s charities and others are in. The five-page Department of Education paper outlining the proposals paved the way for councils to hand over delivery of all social services related to children – with the exception of independent reviewing officer functions, and adoption services.
The changes would expand the scope of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, part 1 of which took effect in November 2013 and enabled councils to delegate social services functions for looked-after children and care leavers.
The government’s plans have stirred the social care sector and triggered high-profile media coverage; ‘Child social services for sale’ was one national newspaper’s front-page headline. Now the consultation responses are in, how do such concerns stack up? What – if any – are the positive opportunities being offered here, and what should happen next?
One of the most pressing issues to have been raised over the plans is that they will introduce a profit motive to children’s social services, particularly child protection. That fear lies at the heart of the letter sent by a group of social work academics, led by Professor Ray Jones, to The Guardian on 16 May that thrust the plans into the spotlight. It is also picked up on in several organisations’ consultation responses, including the Association of Directors’ of Children’s Services (ADCS).
“Decisions taken about a child’s life should only ever be based on what is in the best interests of the child as assessed by skilled and qualified social workers and the court system,” says the ADCS response.
“These decisions cannot, and must not, be subordinate to the pursuit of financial profit. There is a serious risk of perverse financial incentives (direct or indirect) that could potentially distort decisions in individual care cases, for example, to intervene or not, to take a child into care or not.”
Children’s minister Edward Timpson insists claims of ‘mass privatisation’ are a misrepresentation of the government’s ambitions; his keynote speech at Community Care Live instead talked up the benefits of the outsourcing plans. They would, Timpson claimed, free social workers from current legal blocks to them innovating, for example by creating community-based social work practices.
Timpson’s outlook is echoed by Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children’s services. “Delegated authority is not about privatisation,” says. “We have talked for years about the need to be more in control of our professional practice. There is now huge potential to do just that in partnership with local government.”
But Professor June Thoburn of the University of East Anglia, one of the Guardian letter’s signatories, says those assurances do not allay fears that, even if the government says its ambition isn’t privatisation, the plans would hand councils the legal powers to make it happen.
“The statutory instrument to roll out section 1 of the 2008 act: will the government pull back? [The government haven’t] said they won’t go ahead with it, only that it’s not their intention to privatise. If they don’t pull back, it remains up to local authorities,” she says.
It’s a factor also picked up on in responses to the consultation by The College of Social Work and Children England. The latter’s submission warns there’s “not one safeguard proposed that could prevent [privatisation] from becoming an option once councils are free to outsource.”
Social work practices
What about the opportunities for innovation? Ministers say these plans can free social workers from red tape to set up, among other models, social work practices. Social work practice pilots working with looked-after children have been piloted in 15 areas since 2008. In 2012, an evaluation was published on the results of pilots at five of those sites.
In his Community Care Live speech Timpson told social workers: “We know from what’s happening in pilots on the frontline that it works”. The minister pointed to the Evolve-YP social work practice pilot in Staffordshire, a team he said “was breaking new ground” in work with children in care.
“We know that a number of local authorities are eager to see how these freedoms might help them do what they do even better,” the minister said.
Yet concerns have been raised from the sector that the government is overstating the evidence-base for its proposals. In its consultation response, The College of Social Work calls on the government to clarify if it is basing its claims that third party models can work on the evaluation of the social work practice pilots.
“If this is the case, TCSW notes that the evidence that these have been of benefit to children, as reported by the evaluation of the first pilots, is equivocal. There [also] does not appear to have been a concerted review of the strengths and weaknesses of the pilots, as identified by the evaluation,” it said.
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has also warned that there is a lack of evidence the plan would improve children’s social care. In its response, BASW argues that the proposals would in fact encourage councils to seek out the cheapest provider possible and so reduce the quality of services
Accountability and democratic deficit
Another key area of concern is accountability. The proposals specify that even where care is delegated to a third-party provider, the ultimate responsibility for services meeting statutory obligations – and accountability to Ofsted – would remain with local authorities.
There are, says Martin Cresswell, chief executive of local government consultancy iMPOWER, inbuilt problems with this.
“[Usually] if you’re contracting for a service you expect it to be delivered to the standards you set out – you effectively try to pass on responsibility,” he says. “In the case of these services, accountability will always rest with the local authority – that creates difficulties in terms of what is put into a new model, and how.”
The danger, he says, is that getting financial models to stack up may encourage light-touch management arrangements that put too much trust onto providers while councils retain the risk.
Children England’s consultation response picks up on similar issues around the practical difficulties of risk-sharing – and the high service costs and “eye-watering insurance premiums” that could arise from such arrangements. It also poses the scenario in which “it can only be wondered what any child or parent seeking to complain, sue or object to their treatment, might understand in terms of who is or was responsible and answerable to them”.
Martin Narey, the government’s advisor on children’s social care and a keen proponent of opening up services to competition, admits these issues need to be worked through.
“There’s great scope for improvement in commissioning and contract management,” he says. “That’s why I don’t think we’re ready yet and why the consultation has been important. In my view there are some decisions which would always need to stay in the public sector.”
But he dismisses critics of outsourcing as “pompous and sanctimonious”, adding: “We already have markets for some children’s services and competition between voluntary organisations is now embedded. We should not rule out other competent providers from such competitions.”
Narey’s isn’t the only voice sounding a positive note. In its response, charity Action for Children says it welcomes the possibility of greater freedom and flexibility – with the caveats that third-party providers demonstrate relevant expertise and accountability issues are resolved.
“The new freedoms could also be used to drive economies of scale and enable cooperation across local authority and agency boundaries,” it goes on.
“Some targeted services such as therapeutic approaches to working with survivors of child sexual abuse need to reach out to wider catchment areas instead of just one local authority and could be provided under new delivery arrangements. Child protection systems that join up across areas may be more effective in working with mobile families, where we know children are particularly at risk of abuse and neglect.”
And Professor Brigid Featherstone, a social work academic with the Open University, adds that its unhelpful for people sceptical of the proposals simply to be “defensive”. While standing fully by the concerns that led her to sign the letter published in the Guardian, which she says was right to raise them in a “stark way”, she acknowledges there may opportunities to explore.
“I think there should be more neighbourhood-based, family-focused types of approaches,” she says. “The letter sounded like we were saying everything’s all right – that’s not the case.”
“If issues around profit and accountability are sorted out [then in principle] you can experiment with different delivery models. I wouldn’t necessarily be against social enterprise involvement; I judge things on their merits.”
The next steps
With the consultation’s brief six-week span over, there’s near-universal agreement within the sector with The College of Social Work’s call for, at least, “an immediate pause” to enable a far more thorough examination of the proposals’ implications. Whether the government agrees is another matter.
Chief social worker Trowler says she welcomes the scrutiny of the government’s plans: “It’s absolutely right there’s informed and intelligent debate about these proposals. But what is now critical for the social work profession is that it positions itself as ready and able to respond positively to the future, as and when it unfolds.”