The Deregulation Bill currently on its way through Parliament could have a damaging impact on how accountable third-party providers of children’s social work services are, social work academics have warned.
The wide-ranging legislation – described as a “pot pourri of a Bill” by Labour peer Baroness Thornton – had its second reading in the House of Lords on Monday.
Clause 61, ‘Reduction in regulation of providers of social work services’, strikes out the requirement that third-party providers of services, such as the social work practices being encouraged by the government’s innovation programme, register with Ofsted. All due diligence checks would instead be the sole responsibility of commissioning local authorities, as part of their tendering and contracting processes.
Social work academics said they fear the clause, which sits among other red tape-cutting measures covering topics such as housing, the environment, and alcohol and entertainment, will escape serious scrutiny. They argued:
- It will take away an important level of transparency – in that providers must, when registering with Ofsted, currently stipulate who they’re employing and what their governance and quality assurance measures are.
- Too much power – and therefore risk – will rest with local authority commissioners, who have variable levels of expertise and may be under intense financial pressure, but will ultimately be held responsible by Ofsted for how services perform.
- It makes no sense for fostering agencies and children’s homes, for example, to have to register with Ofsted, while contracted-out children’s social services do not.
Professor June Thoburn of the University of East Anglia, who drew Community Care’s attention to the bill last month, said: “It will put huge amounts of power into the hands of local authority commissioners. There are also questions about commercial secrecy, whereas anyone who’s registered with Ofsted first of all has [to meet] a set of requirements to say who you’re employing and who your governors and funders are.”
Thoburn said the clause was particularly worrying in the light of recent question marks over the government’s assertion that profit-making firms would have no place in contracted-out children’s social services. She suggested an amendment to scrap the proposed changes would be a prudent option – at least until the wider impact of children’s services outsourcing has had time to ripple out.
“They could delete it and see how things go,” said Thoburn. “[Outsourcing children’s social work] is incredibly experimental. It’s better to keep [registration] in as a safeguard and, if it turns out it’s not needed, abolish it later.”
Professor Brigid Featherstone of the Open University told Community Care she’s concerned cuts-squeezed councils will suffer from the lack of an extra safeguard.
She said: “When local authorities are under the cosh budget wise, things can be commissioned in a hurry and in unsatisfactory circumstances. When inspected by Ofsted, they’ll be blamed for processes that mightn’t entirely be their fault.”
Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, said the removal of the Ofsted-registration requirement would be of “huge concern” to BASW members, given the “furore” that the government’s wider outsourcing consultation had already caused. She agreed with Thoburn that a lighter touch was not the answer during a period of change.
Mansuri said: “Some members have already raised concerns with us that what exists in terms of providers being registered, but not inspected directly by Ofsted, can lead to poor practice.
“One of the watchwords since the Climbié Inquiry is public accountability, so why should there be different rules applied to different providers if we are talking about setting standards to safeguard children?” she added.
The Department for Education declined to comment on concerns over the Deregulation Bill, beyond stating that its stance on the issue of outsourcing services remains unchanged.