Charities can’t just be a critical friend – they should be involved in running children’s services

Andy Elvin argues that standing on the sidelines isn't enough for large children's charities, who often have significant funding reserves

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by Andy Elvin

In December 2015, David Cameron outlined plans for a more standardised system for taking over failing children’s services. If a local authority shows persistent failure it will immediately be taken over by high-performing councils, charities or child protection experts, and if a service fails to show improvements in the six months following inspection, it will face a similar intervention.

Children’s charities must get involved in this process. At the social work reform inquiry evidence session last week leading children’s charities seemed very reluctant to get involved in the complex business of actually leading the provision of frontline statutory children’s social care.

TACT are very keen to be given the opportunity to provide frontline care services for local authorities and are currently bidding to do just that. We recognise that local authorities are operating under massive pressures at present and that we are in a position to roll up our sleeves and get involved, not on a piece-work basis but as the actual provider of a substantial piece of the statutory children services architecture.

Opportunities

With the move to more children’s trusts or community interest companies, as modelled by the impressive Achieving for Children model in Richmond & Kingston, there are more opportunities for children’s charities to step up and get some actual ‘skin in the game’.

Standing on the sidelines and providing some narrowly defined contractual pieces of work for local authorities, while also acting as a critical friend highlighting shortcomings in children services, is no longer good enough.

Just as many charities in the education world, such as ARK, have stepped up and set up academy schools, so the leading children’s charities should be pushing to be involved in the leadership of emerging children’s trusts as sponsors or partners. They could run these solely, go into partnership with local councils as owners of community interest companies or be the main contractor for such companies.  All of these options are available under current legislation.

Much to offer

Charities have much to offer. Many of the larger children’s charities have significant reserves and access to funding streams that local authorities do not, they are also not bound by ludicrous funding arrangements in local government that work against efficiency and multi-year investment.

Often charities find it easier to innovate and generate new ideas as their structures can be less cumbersome than those of local government, that is not to say that local authorities can’t and don’t innovate.  Charities often also find it easier to recruit staff than local authorities, though this could also be because they are not in the statutory firing line.

However the reluctance of charities to become involved in this way is palpable. In seeking to make sense of this it is worth remembering that the NSPCC has “Authorised Person” status which they make much of on their website.

They have never used the power reaffirmed for them under the 1989 Children Act. Understanding why this is the case is instructive in explaining the reluctance of the big children charities to get involved in the running of statutory children’s services. The NSPCC was sharply criticised during the Laming inquiry into the tragic death of Victoria Climbie, this had a reputational impact and, I understand, a fundraising one.

Risks

This is where we get into tricky territory for children charities. Many of the largest UK children’s charities rely primarily on fundraising income from volunteers, the general public and charitable trusts. Negative publicity can have a profound impact on this income, especially on regular direct debit giving. Many people let these direct debits run for years and only cancel them if their financial circumstances become constrained or they hear concerning things about the charity they support.

If children charities become directly involved in the leadership and management of frontline child protection and care system services then the potential for reputational damage is increased significantly. Tragically there will be high profile child deaths and serious case reviews.

At present it is generally only the statutory services, mainly local authorities, who are held ultimately accountable as they are the professionals holding case responsibility, they are at the sharp end. No amount of slick advertising aimed at generating funds can disguise the fact that the major children’s charities are not.  It should be remembered by those who generously support charities that it is actually our council and income taxes that largely pay for child protection and the care system.

Private sector

It needs also to be said that despite the Department for Education’s efforts to generate a market, the usual suspects of G4S, Serco, Capita and their ilk have no appetite to get involved in running child protection services. They have judged that the reputational risks are too high and the opportunity for profit too narrow.

In this they are minded by what happened to G4S at Medway secure training centre and, most pertinently, Circle Holdings at Hinchingbrooke hospital.

At Hinchingbrooke pressures on A&E caused the private sector to walk away. Put simply when the private sector cannot control demand in public sector contracts their business model falls apart. When running a local authority child protection service you cannot manage how many children will meet the threshold for intervention or to come into care.

So in the absence of the private sector (which is welcome in my view) in child protection this leaves local government and charities as the available players. Becoming a Children’s Trust sponsor or taking on a local authority frontline services as the main provider would be a bold step for a charity and carries a level of risk many do not face at present.  Nevertheless it is crucial for vulnerable children, and our credibility, that we charities seek to do this.

Andy Elvin is chief executive of TACT

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