Private firms’ involvement in children’s social work should be rethought after G4S scandal

Ray Jones argues that G4S selling its children's services is not the end for profit making in children's social work

Picture credit: Murray Sanders / Daily Mail/REX Shutterstock

by Ray Jones

The recent decision by G4S to withdraw from the provision of children’s services, including secure training centres and children’s homes, has been welcomed by those who have a concern for the safety and welfare of children.

G4S’ track record is pretty abysmal in fulfilling public service commitments. Just think back to its failure to satisfy its contract to provide security at the London Olympics and its over-charging of the government for the tagging and surveillance of offenders.

Those were high risk public safety responsibilities on which G4S failed to deliver. Now, thanks to an investigation by BBC Panorama into a G4S-run young offenders centre in Medway, we know that it failed to keep children in its care safe. It has been reported that abuse allegations at the Medway centre surfaced many years ago and may have been known to senior managers within G4S’ children’s services.

Profit-making

Private companies have attended meetings at the Department for Education (DfE) to discuss how to create a marketplace in children’s social services.

The prospect of a new profit-making market opportunity is clearly enticing. It is why international investment bankers and hedge funds are now showing a growing interest in children’s social services.

This is not only about running children’s homes. It is also about the opportunity created by two regulatory changes introduced by the coalition government, unopposed to date by Labour, to open up children’s social work services to the market place.

Nowhere else

Companies like G4S, Serco and others can now take on contracts which allow them to undertake children in need and child protection assessments and investigations, manage children in need and child protection plans, decide whether to initiate care proceedings, and then to determine where and with whom children should live. To do this, all these companies need to do is set up a not-for-profit subsidiary. Then the parent company can charge its subsidiary whatever it likes for the services it provides to the subsidiary, which is how a profit is made.

Nowhere else in the world allows these crucial state responsibilities to be opened up to a competitive commercial market place focused on price and profit. In December, David Cameron committed that, by the end of this government, more children’s social work services could be delivered outside of local authorities.

So is it good news that G4S is running for cover after the exposure of abuse of children in its care? Like others, I am pleased that G4S at this time is moving out of children’s services in the UK, although they may well be back if the profits to be made look juicy.

It is a global security company and its UK children’s services will be a very small part of its burgeoning business. Over recent years I have seen employees in G4S uniforms guarding banks in Bolivia and collecting money from hotels and undertaking passenger security checks in Barbados.

Commercial opportunity

They have no ingrained commitment to children in the UK and their welfare and safety. Their interest is about commercial opportunity, profit for their distant shareholders and big incomes for their top managers.

This motivation will not change when another commercial organisation now buys out G4S’ existing public service contracts for children’s services. Indeed, it has been reported that several private companies are interested in taking on these G4S contracts and services, including children’s homes.

As far as I can see, they don’t have any track record in delivering children’s social care.

Commodity

As I understand it, G4S will determine, based on commercial criteria, to whom it will transfer its children’s homes and other services.

The care of children and their safety and welfare has become a commodity to be traded between commercial companies. Presumably if no company wants to take on a particular service it will be quickly closed with no remaining or residual responsibility for the children in its care.

This is the brave new world that has been created for children and for children’s social services. It is now what is promised for children’s social work, including crucial decision-making about the welfare and safety of children.

The recent exposure by the BBC of abuse in G4S’ Medway unit, and the company’s subsequent decision to sell on its children’s services to other commercial companies, has done nothing to suggest that this brave new world is a sensible or safe prospect for children. Is it time for a re-think?

Ray Jones is a professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London.

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4 Responses to Private firms’ involvement in children’s social work should be rethought after G4S scandal

  1. LongtimeSW March 3, 2016 at 3:11 pm #

    . . . . . . . and when it comes to pass, how long before the rates paid to Locum’s will be slashed, and ‘take it or leave it’ becomes the norm in future pay and conditions negotiations?

  2. SWRecruiter March 3, 2016 at 5:11 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more! There is no way a privately owned company should profit from running local authority services. Its one thing providing staff where there is a shortfall of staff, but running a service and in some cases providing candidates from their own talent pools to those services is just wrong!

  3. AnonymousWorker March 4, 2016 at 6:59 pm #

    I think it’s misleading to have articles like this and I know the majority of the social care workforce will disagree – but how many have worked in the private sector? Having worked in both sectors very recently and continue to do so I can tell you that the large, global organisation I worked for (not Serco or G4S) certainly did a fantastic job and better than some LAs I have worked with.

    I believe this opinion is outdated. It’s funny – in times of austerity, the private sector can *sometimes* provide effective services that are cheaper, which overall saves money for the public purse. Though like any LA or voluntary provider – they can be totally different depending on what service, where, funding, organisational hierarchy, management workforce! I think until you’ve worked in both sectors and understand the work undertaken outside the more typical local authority/voluntary sector, you may understand. Of course, I haven’t worked at G4S either – but some balance, please!

  4. Tom J March 7, 2016 at 12:39 pm #

    Where to begin with Annoymous worker! You state that Ray Jones opinion is outdated.; Yet I would argue that the neoliberal new Labour Thatcherite/Blairite view that you espouse is what has been shown to be outdated.

    For too long the political parties of all colours have constantly promoted the line of Private: innovative, modern, efficient, genius and good. Public : Bad.

    I have seen my local children centres destroyed by outsourcing; new reliance on agency workers, refusal to share resources with other children centres aka competitors, only fulfilling ‘the contract’, unaccountable. I could go on.

    and yes- I have worked in the private sector for a fostering company. It was better but only because the LA were paying double for the cost of placements. But was it perfect? No. Did I see any miracle work that could not be achieved by LA workers? No.

    In fact you do actually answer your own question : the key is getting the ‘funding, organisational hierarchy, management workforce’ right.