Councils not outsourcing child protection despite legal change

Kingston and Richmond still the only area to have voluntarily delegated child protection functions to a third party provider

Photo: Rex/Cultura (posed by models)

by Luke Stevenson and Rachel Schraer

Councils are not taking advantage of ‘freedoms’ to delegate child protection services to third parties under powers introduced by the government last year, a Community Care investigation has found.

The same number of councils have been forced to delegate their child protection services by government as have opted to do so voluntarily.

Only three – Doncaster, Kingston and Richmond – had made use of a controversial change in law that allows councils to delegate statutory duties for child protection services to a third party. A fourth, Slough, has had its children’s services taken over by a children’s trust since the date of our freedom of information request, which was responded to by 127 councils.

In all four cases, children’s services are run by an independent children’s trust or community interest company wholly owned by the councils. Kingston and Richmond jointly set up Achieving for Children to run their children’s services, while Doncaster and Slough were forced to set up children’s trusts by the government following successive inadequate ratings by Ofsted.

More than 20 local authorities had delegated other functions, such as children’s centres and children’s homes, to third parties.

Privatisation fears

Community Care asked councils whether they had delegated children’s services functions to third party providers since May 2014, when the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 was amended to allow the majority of children’s services to be delegated to not-for-profit third parties.

Initially, the government proposed that local authorities would be able to delegate aspects of their children’s services to any provider, including private ones. However, following a consultation and widespread criticism from the sector, it changed the wording so that local authorities could only delegate to not-for-profit third parties.

The change in regulations
Regulations introduced in 2014 allowed local authorities to delegate almost all of their social services functions relating to children.
This was an extension of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 which had already allowed local authorities to delegate social care functions relating to looked-after children and care leavers to third parties.
The original draft of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 (Relevant Care Functions) (England) Regulations 2014 allowed for profit-making companies to take on child protection functions, but this was altered at this last minute so that corporations have to set up a not-for-profit arm if they wish to bid for delegated functions.
Local authorities remain accountable for delivering their statutory obligations towards children and young people.

The privatisation debate has continued since, with sector leaders accusing government of insulting social workers’ intelligence about privatisation, and academics warning that private companies can still set up not-for-profit subsidiaries to get around the rule.

Lack of appetite

In a Community Care article last year, chief social worker for children and families, Isabelle Trowler, described the powers as “an invitation from government to take greater control”, and said they would “give social workers and their leaders around the country new freedoms and opportunities to design the services we joined the profession to provide”.

The government’s consultation response, where it made the U-turn to only allow services to be delegated to not-for-profit providers, said the move would enable a “a broader range of delivery and reporting structures, enabling greater structural innovation and the harnessing of external expertise in pursuit of improved social work practice and better outcomes for children”.

However, despite the mooted advantages of the new regulations, and recent comments from prime minister David Cameron about the importance that “state monopolies should be broken and new providers with great ideas should be welcomed in” in relation to how the government operates, Community Care has found little appetite from local authorities to engage with these new powers.

The Department for Education (DfE) was asked whether it was surprised that there has been such a lack of appetite for the new rules – which the government faced a lot of criticism to enact – and why it thinks local authorities are not trying to use different models and providers more regularly.

A spokesperson said: “Last year’s legislative change ensures councils have the power to decide how to deliver children’s social care services to best meet the needs of children and families in their area.”

When asked whether having local authorities taken over by children’s trusts is now the DfE’s preferred improvement option, the spokesperson said: “We will not hesitate to intervene robustly in any failure to deliver children’s services effectively – and will do so using the tools which best meet the individual circumstances in the local authorities concerned.”

Gateway to privatisation

Kingston University professor Ray Jones, a prominent critic of the amended act, said the findings did not alleviate his concerns that delegating child protection services would prove a gateway to privatisation.

“It’s all part of a process,” he said. “We know [delegating has] already happened in Doncaster and Slough, Richmond and Kingston and we know Northamptonshire is planning it.

“With further cuts ahead, inspection judgements will be pointing out councils can’t provide adequate services and that opens the floodgates for government to require local authorities to delegate services.”

Jones said the findings showed local authorities were reluctant to delegate child protection services, but added that authorities are increasingly recognising they cannot afford to provide services in-house.

He fears that once services have been taken out of local authorities, despite being still owned by them, it would be easier for private companies to bid for the services when the local authority-owned company or trust’s contract ran out.

He added councils were going to be “coerced and corralled” into delegating their child protection functions.

“Mr Cameron has made it clear the future for these services is not in local government,” Jones said.

Untried and untested

In those local authorities which had delegated functions other than child protection, these included children’s centres, children’s homes and return interviews for children who had gone missing.

The promotion of disabled children’s rights, independent visitor schemes for looked-after children, young carer assessments and leaving care services were also delegated by local authorities across the country. The providers were often national charities, such as Barnardo’s, the National Youth Advocacy Service and Action for Children.

British Association of Social Workers’ professional officer, Nushra Mansuri, said she wasn’t surprised local authorities hadn’t taken up the new powers provided in the act.

“These things are untried and untested,” she said. “How do we know it is the panacea government says it is?”

Risk

She added the findings showed most councils were committed to delivering children’s services within their local authority.

“The jury still has to be out on this. It’s a risk for local authorities and it took Slough longer than projected.

“Meanwhile, we’ve got examples of failing local authorities that have turned it around in-house, so we know it can be done.”

But, she said, every local authority was aware its fate depended on its next Ofsted inspection.

“I think the next authority to crash and burn is going to come under a lot of pressure to think about delegating services,” she said.

While there are statutory minimums on staff numbers and time spent with children,  Mansuri said, the worry was that if delegated services eventually came into the hands of a private provider, profit margins would encourage a de-skilling of the workforce.

There is a danger providers would hire in cheaper, less qualified staff, and relegate social work to a care management role, she said. Threats to social workers’ terms and conditions could be another way of keeping costs down when employment contracts came up for renewal, BASW fear.

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3 Responses to Councils not outsourcing child protection despite legal change

  1. Gerald October 14, 2015 at 12:26 pm #

    What a suprise (not really) , it seems that the Local Authorities can blatantly make a complete mess of what they do and still think they can do it the best, what is new new ??
    Look at the case for Care Homes for the elderly, after 30 years now the “Private Sector” has taken over, supported by the General Public and the CQC, there are still Local Authorities and Health Authorities that advocate that they can do it better, thank Goodness the CQC and the Public disagree.

  2. Kate Wells October 15, 2015 at 12:42 am #

    Local authorities are in many respects unable to carry out their statutory responsibilities (in both Children and Adult Services) because this govt have demanded massive savings are made, leaving budgets cut to the bone. This is true of all public services not just Social Care. You must have heard from the BMA how they are facing the biggest crisis in the NHS since it’s inception in 1948 due to budget cuts.

    Prior to care for older people being contracted out to private companies, all residential care for these service users was provided by the local authority, and they were properly regulated, and the staff were paid the “going rate” for the job; there was little staff turn over and the residents were treated well. Contrast that to the private sector who are of course in it to make a profit – and staff are poorly paid and corners are cut to ensure sufficient profit. Provision of care should NOT be a business.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say the private sector is supported by the general public – how can you possibly know that? The CQC’s role is not to support private sector care as you seem to think. It is the regulatory body that is tasked with carrying out inspections, usually on an annual basis.

    Home care is another huge problem. Time was when the LA provided this service – they employed “Home helps” who spent a couple of hours with a service user, did some cleaning and shopped, picked up prescriptions etc. Again they were employed by the LA and were paid the “going rate” for the job. Now that this service has been privatised, we hear of service users only getting a 15 minute visit because the LA can only afford to pay the private Agency for this amount of time, and the Agency’s on-costs off course as they are a business and like all businesses are in it to make profit. The people (usually women) who work for these agencies are exploited. They are not paid for the time it takes them to travel between the people they need to visit, and some don’t get mileage. They have no job satisfaction as they are very aware that a person needs more than a 15 minute dash in and dash out

    This government will not be satisfied till all public services are privatised. A shocking state of affairs.

  3. Gerald October 25, 2015 at 4:06 pm #

    Kate Wells October 15, 2015 at 12:42 am #

    Dear Kate,

    I have been doing my job for over 30 years now and I really cannot ever recall the perfect world which you describe, what I can recall are the ” Geriatric wards”of sometimes over 20 people, (mixed sex, on some occasions) which very badly staffed ,totally institutionalized and demoralized, these have now been replaced by the Private Sector with Nursing Homes which are Run and managed by Nurses 24/7 at a cost which is at least a quarter of the price of any NHS facility. Now that we getting an unbiased approach from the CQC anyone can see which is the better quality.

    You and many others keep harping on about the profit motives of the Private Sector, this is a complete red herring as far as I am concerned , the public are only concerned with value for money and people such as yourself can not condone the massive loss making organizations milking the public through bad management and political dogma.

    If you really would like to see what the world is like without Private Business please refer to the state of the USSR at the time of its demise , there was no “Private Sector” involved anywhere at all and look what a complete shambles it was.

    I am not advocating the dissolution of the NHS or Local Authorities I leave this sort of black and white approach to you, all I am asking for is a fair appraisal of what has been achieved by the Private Sector without resorting to political dogma and mud slinging.