Chief social worker defends government’s controversial new outsourcing laws

Any policy change carries 'risks and opportunities', writes Isabelle Trowler in response to recent criticism from Professor Ray Jones

Isabelle Trowler
Isabelle Trowler, chief social worker for children

In his recent article for Community Care, Professor Ray Jones suggests that I wish to promote new social care organisations “able to provide unregistered, uninspected and unregulated children’s social services”. I do not. Nor does the government. Nor does the chair of the government’s Innovation Programme (about whom the accusation is also made).

I feel sure Professor Jones has no desire to misrepresent my position or to scaremonger. I can, therefore, only assume he has simply failed to understand the facts. In his article he says that he is “confused” and asks “if I have got this wrong I do hope my misunderstanding will be corrected quickly by those proposing the regulatory changes”. Let me try to do so.

To begin with, Professor Jones refers to the “tenuous accountability” that would result from local authorities working with third party providers.  Yet, as he himself acknowledges, there is no proposal at all to remove from local authorities any of their existing statutory functions.

Critical thread of accountability

For local authorities the same legal duties will apply, the same regulations, the same quality standards and, importantly, they will be subject to precisely the same inspection regime whether or not they choose to delegate functions. That critical thread of accountability is unaffected by anything being proposed.

Then, there is the idea of an “unregulated market place” of uninspected social care bodies. Yet this will not be the case under the proposals.  Any organisation to which a local authority chooses to delegate any of its statutory functions will be included as part of the existing Ofsted inspection approach and subject to precisely the same regulations and standards that currently apply.

This is not just theory, it is reality. The recent inspection of Staffordshire council (one of the few local authorities currently using the already existing freedoms around looked-after and care leaver functions) included rigorous inspection of the services provided by their social work mutual Evolve YP, which formed part of the council’s overall ‘good’ judgement.

Crucially, the critical decisions and judgements about children’s lives will still be made by social workers and inspection will focus on the difference being made to children’s lives.

Process for change

Professor Jones’ confusion also extends beyond the substance of the proposal to the process for change. It is ironic, for example, that he expresses a view that there is to be no Parliamentary scrutiny of the changes in the very week that the government laid draft regulations in Parliament to begin a lengthy process of scrutiny.

Government – both central and local – is seen by Professor Jones as signing up to a “script”, which states that publicly-run children’s social care is “inefficient and moribund” and that innovation and creativity can only be achieved outside local government.

Whose script is that? It is certainly not mine. Nor is it a script that ministers have used to support these changes, or a view they have ever expressed to me privately. Instead, their view and mine is that no sector – public, private or voluntary – has a monopoly of ideas or creativity or talent. That is precisely why they wish to provide more freedoms for those sectors to work together, harnessing the capacity of all those with an interest in improving the lives of children.

Meanwhile the reverse script is all too clear. So, large voluntary sector bodies like the NSPCC and Action for Children are not seen as mission-driven organisations with proud traditions who might wish to play a more central role in improving the life chances of children. Instead they are portrayed as distant, predatory organisations merely seeking “growth opportunities”.

Bleak picture

Local authority leaders welcoming the new freedoms are not seen to be doing so because they aspire to develop new models of excellent care, but because it is “part of their strategy to cut costs”.

And if you assume such motivations, it is all too easy to paint a bleak picture of the future. So, Professor Jones argues that the new third party providers “may have no local roots, knowledge or commitment, senior managers may be hundreds of miles away, and there will be the churn and change of organisations coming and going as contracts are re-tendered”.

That is indeed a bleak picture. Yet it appears to have little to do with reality in those areas that have already used existing freedoms through social work practices: local organisations, grown out of councils with high staff retention and motivation and strong local management.

Professor Jones’ vision of the future is also one of greater “fragmentation”. Yet the proposed freedoms provide new opportunities for local partners to come together – across social care and health for example – in new organisations that break down organisational barriers and can be shaped around the needs of children not institutional divides.

An invitation from government

Any policy change carries risks and opportunities. So, it is quite right that we are having a debate about these proposals and healthy that there was widespread engagement in the recent consultation. As a profession we are taught to assess risk and form a view. But that assessment needs to be informed by the facts and avoid ascribing false motivations to others, which does them a disservice.

More than that, as social workers we are trained not only to assess the likelihood of future events, but to intervene to shape them for the better. These new freedoms provide a chance to do just that. Our role is not to sit back and watch avoidable bleak futures. Our role is to intervene – to seize opportunities, build on strengths and challenge ourselves to shape brighter futures.

These proposals give social workers and their leaders around the country new freedoms and opportunities to design the services we joined the profession to provide. It is an invitation from government to take greater control. It is an invitation we should accept.

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8 Responses to Chief social worker defends government’s controversial new outsourcing laws

  1. mark June 30, 2014 at 11:07 am #

    “Our role is not to sit back and watch avoidable bleak future” so says the Government’s chief social worker.

    Her defence of the strategy to let local authorities outsource childrens’ services misses the bigger picture and does nothing to ease concerns at all. This Tory dominated Government is ideologically wedded to the “neocon” approach to everything. This “public sector/big state is bad, private sector/free markey/outsourcing is best” approach has been demonstrated repeatedly, whether it was the scandalous abolition of a chunk of the respected probation service, the privatisation(in the teeth of public opposition) of Royal Mail through to the initial proposal to allow our childrens’ services to be sold off to Capita or Group4 etc.

    It was only after vociferous, united and scandalised response to the prospect of the likes of Group 4 being responsible for taking kids into care and placing them in their own private care homes (including no doubt private secure care homes to increase profits) that the plan to privatise childrens’ services was diluted. I am personally certain that the current plan, so strongly defended by Ms Trowler, is actually just an interim position and the fight to privatise the welfare state will continue.

    I do not doubt that Ms Trowler beleives what she says; but she is quite wrong.Look at community care services. Starting with the involvement of good voluntary organisations we have, bit by bit, seen decent services being dismantled. Now when we are old we can look forward to untrained people on zero hour contracts and on minimum wages spending a few rushed minutes with us to tuck us into bed at 7.30pm as there is nobody to help us into bed any later. This is the future the neo cons and this government would do to childcare. All the history sugests this is true.

    Ms Trowler can dress this up as being a “new opportunity”. Those wioth a bit of perspective can see it for what it actually is. Same old same old.

    • mark July 2, 2014 at 12:43 pm #

      It’s actually worse than I thought. Like everyone else I had believed that the Tories had abandoned, just for the time being, the plan to feather the nests of the likes of Group4 andf Capita. Now we find:

      “The government claims to have listened to concerns from charities, organisations and professionals over their reckless plans to turn child protection into a profit-making venture. But the truth is they have left a back door open for profit making companies to set up non-profit subsidiaries to take over the critical and sensitive function of deciding how best to protect vulnerable children.”

      “There is a huge risk that the likes of Serco and G4S could create these subsidiaries as part of their wider businesses. These companies could end up making a profit out of vulnerable children and their families. There is an obvious conflict of interest as some of these companies also run children’s homes. It will make it difficult to know how funds will flow between their profit-making and non-profit making arms.”

      Far from as, Ms Trowler states, this “huge risk” being as result of “ascribing false motivations to others” this concern is actually based on solid facts. I think she should apologise for his attack on Prof Jones immediately since the Government has very clearly decided to leave the door open to the big corporations, corporations who may profit from, for example, an increase in the rate of incarceration of children.

      is a link to a sign of a financial relationship between the Tories and G4S. The current plans are clear. The government has no real interest in “new opportunities for local partners to come together”. They have their long demonstrated interest in attacking the state sector and giving buisiness to their mates in big business.The ideological attack on the welfare state is their real interest.

  2. John Ramsey July 2, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

    The trouble withn this is that, like many of us in Publice Service, when I hear the word “outsourcing” I reach for my gun. We are all of us wise to the little scam beloved of the current Government; 1) Under-resource a service. 2) Declare it “broken”, “unfit for purpose” or “unsustainable”. 3) Reward your chums in the private sector with fat contracts to run said service.
    It comes about when politicians ask not “how well does the service serve its recipients?” but “who is making any money out of it?”.
    I know Isablee Trowler of old, and i do not see her either falling for this or being a willing participant in it. However, I would like to know more about the organisations such as Evolve YP that she thinks can do bettetr than the traditional providers, and why they can do so?

    • Simon Cardy July 4, 2014 at 12:05 am #

      The Chief Social Worker’s position is wholly unrepresentative of the profession and partisan. It exposes her true purpose as loyal civil servant who sees her role in explaining government policy to a skeptical profession that is not buying into the idea that the solution to all our problems lie outside directly run council services.

      The problem with the chief social worker’s argument is this.

      The government is not making the contracted-out social work providers subject to Ofsted inspection. Local authority care homes are inspected, parts of local authority services are inspected, adoption, safeguarding, looked after services and so on,often have their own inspection separate from larger inspections – so why should independent providers running social work services be exempt from Ofsted oversight – is partly what Ray Jones is pointing out?

      Secondly, it will lead to fragmentation because third sector organisations can pick and choose where in the country they want to bid for contracts – this will lead to uneven development and fragmentation – absolutely it will. Recent research has also found that providers often respond to tenders by submitting bids for services they would like to run and not necessarily what is in the service specification which is another problem for local services facing outsourcing.

      Thirdly, the chief social worker engages in what amount to perpetuating government propaganda by trotting out the much overrated Evolve YP social work practice – riding on the back as it does – of a positive overall inspection of Staffordshire. What Isabelle Trowler probably knows, but is unwilling to share with community care readers, is that there are ‘no substantial differences’ between the social work practices and comparable local authorities. And this isn’t me saying this it’s a direct quote from the governments own evaluation * of Evolve YP led by the Professor Nicky Stanley. This research also quietly pointed out that the social work practices were cocooned with subsidized IT resources, had no child protection or adoption responsibilities and were not entrusted to take charge of the council’s placement budgets. In short Evolve YP and their tiny handful of counterparts are still a theoretical and politically constructed concept that does not stand up to the sort of scrutiny professor Jones advocates. Ray Jones has widespread support from social workers and should be commended for speaking up.


  3. Jacqueline Hughes July 2, 2014 at 5:46 pm #

    If government money used by private providers is not open to the same scrutiny as local or national government; if a private provider hides behind corporate secrecy; than that system is not transparent.

  4. Phil Sanderson July 2, 2014 at 7:33 pm #

    This is spot on. Her chum Gove is an ideological zealot who is hell bent on dismantling any democratic control of schools and social care. Trowler is in a fantasy land saying nothing about the 30% cuts to frontline services and that somehow voluntary and private sector will be so much better. Trowler is completely out of touch with the frontline most of whom do not accept this neo liberal trash.

  5. Jim Greer July 3, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

    I think it is time to put aside the demonising of profit making services. Lots of public services make very large salaries for their chief executives and public services must borrow money to invest in service improvement. There is no essential difference between this and dividend paid to investors. Airlines could in theory stint on safety costs to save money but they don’t for obvious reasons. The private companies involved in development of new medicines create innovation that saves countless lives throughout the world. It is only the potential for return on investment which attracts shareholders money ti drive this innovation. Most Community Care readers benefit from living in advanced industrial society.
    There are good reasons why certain companies with a poor track record like G4S should not be involved in community care provision but anti-capitalism rhetoric is all about individual political perspectives rather than what is best for service users.
    This is a huge opportunity for social workers to set up local practices where they can build good relationships with the local communities they serve and make smart decisions about all sorts of things like what IT systems to purchase, what sort of office space to use, how to communicate with the media etc.
    If I was starting out on my career now then I would be dying to set up my own service.
    Follow the link above and read my blog entry on the subject.

  6. John Ramsey July 8, 2014 at 11:35 am #

    Jim, the difference is that while social services need money and their employees must be paid, their primary function is not to make money. Henry Ford once said ” we are not in business to make cars. We are in business to make money”. Although the major airlines are regulated rigourously enough to ensure that they are safe, there have been plenty of instances of airlines, for example in the Far east, where safety standards have not been maintained because regulation was lax or corrupt.

    The point is that while I would accept that the current model of services being overwhelmingly provided by local government may not be the only viable one, we need to be very very wary of any model which introduces a motive other than the good of the service users. Regulation and inspection are only part of the answer; raise the bar too high and a private-sector provider has the option of walking away, just as an airline, to prolong the comparison, has the option of ceasing to fly an unprofitable route.

    This isn’t anti capitalist rhetoric. We live in a mixed economy and the trick is to get the mix right.