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.
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.
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.
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.
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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