The government’s contentious consultation over delegating children’s social work functions to third parties has been variously described as the thin end of a sinister wedge that will empower large private firms to run child protection, and an important progression designed to improve and localise services via social enterprise involvement.
Amid the heated discussions that have been taking place over the past six weeks, we’ve pulled out 10 key arguments.
1. The consultation was inadequate
The University of East Anglia’s Professor June Thoburn described the slim Department for Education paper in the strongest possible terms as “an insult and a mess”, saying that the parameters and level of detail – and evidence – necessary to debate such an important issue simply weren’t in it. But she was far from being the only critic of the process itself: charity Children England was just one of the parties highlighting that best practice should dictate a consultation period of at least 12 weeks, rather than the six – coinciding with local and European election campaigning – granted in this case.
2. Innovation needn’t mean outsourcing
Professor Brigid Featherstone, like Thoburn a signatory of the letter to the Guardian that propelled the outsourcing consultation into mainstream consciousness, admitted people could interpret the document as a call to retain the status quo. But, while acknowledging social enterprises could create “pockets of wonderful innovation” she stressed that local authorities could, and should drive innovation too. Dialogue with practitioners, rather than “sticks” to demoralise them, is the way forward according to Featherstone – something that Unison also foregrounded in its consultation response.
3. Profit has no place in child protection
Concerns over the potential introduction of a profit motive to child protection services featured in many consultation responses. “Decisions taken about a child’s life should only ever be based on what is in the best interests of the child,” said the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ (ADCS) statement. “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 cases, for example, to intervene or not, to take a child into care or not.”
4. Accountability is key
The success of the UK’s child protection system was hailed by the ADCS, among others, as being founded on its direct accountability. Many questioned how this could endure in the face of possible fragmentation – even Martin Narey, the government advisor and advocate of introducing competition into the sector, reiterated that finding satisfactory resolution to this conundrum is of paramount importance.
5. Learn lessons from elsewhere
Narey, a former director general of the prisons service, has been keen to talk up the benefits that he says have been brought about by inviting in the private sector. But others interviewed by Community Care flagged the recent, and much criticised part-privatisation of the probation service as being an ongoing story that children’s social work practitioners ought to be keeping a close eye on.
6. Beware ‘lift and shift’
Doncaster Council’s children’s services are being outsourced to an independent trust for five to 10 years under central government measures – and other councils have talked of doing so voluntarily. Martin Cresswell of local government consultancy iMPOWER suggested that achieving change requires a more nuanced approach of unpacking the different “service components to work out, where we can articulate what we need, what drives the right incentives on the service provider – whether that’s local authority or private/voluntary sector”.
7. Small is possible
Children’s minister Edward Timpson claims the government’s plans are about encouraging the establishment of independent social work practices, and even the consultation’s sternest critics see potential merit in this. “If the government says, you may only delegate to small practices – regulated and required to employ social workers – then that experiment would be interesting, and there may be benefits,” said Thoburn.
8. Boundaries can be bridged
Action for Children drew attention to another possible benefit of independent practices – the ability to develop targeted services, for example working with survivors of child sexual abuse, that are able to reach beyond local authority boundaries. “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,” the charity added.
9. Time for further reflection…
Part of the College of Social Work’s consultation response, which called for an “immediate pause” to enable further examination of the implications of the proposals, was something that parties on all sides of the argument could agree on. “It is essential that all parties and both Houses of Parliament should have the opportunity to consult with constituents and debate them extensively,” said Children England.
10. …but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture
Staying within the subject of social work outsourcing, Thoburn cautioned that clause 52 of the Deregulation Bill 2013-14 – currently on its way towards the Lords – poses danger as it proposes that corporate bodies with functions delegated to them by local authorities no longer need to register with Ofsted. But, seeking to look beyond the current furore, the NSPCC’s director of strategy, policy and evidence Lisa Harker has urged people in the social work sector not to “stir up a false fight about privatisation of children’s services”.
To do so, she said, risks detracting from the immediate issue – “that we have a child protection system in crisis.”