Suffolk could outsource child protection despite legal risks

When Suffolk Council revealed plans to outsource almost all of its public services the most obvious...

When Suffolk Council revealed plans to outsource almost all of its public services the most obvious question for many in the sector was “what about child protection?”

Although Suffolk remains tight-lipped about what exactly will be outsourced, and when, Community Care understands the plan is to outsource every service over the next five years, including complex areas such as child protection. One children’s services consultant predicted that child protection is likely to be one of the last areas to go and, legally, it could prove problematic to accomplish.

Ultimately, unless legislation is passed, there are certain responsibilities councils cannot shed through outsourcing, such as their legal accountability as a corporate parent and many of their decision-making functions.

Ed Mitchell, editor of Social Care Law Today, says: “Councils need to take real care to ensure that, in the rush to outsource, they do not lose sight of their legal responsibilities towards vulnerable children. Currently, councils are generally limited to outsourcing services rather than the decision-making role that makes up the corporate parenting function.”

The coalition has recently invited more tenders for the independent social work practice pilots, which paved the way for some outsourcing of statutory social work. Part 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 permits councils to discharge certain decision-making responsibilities towards looked-after children to the social work practices.

The move could suggest this is a government that will look favourably upon the outsourcing of child protection services. However, even if a council enters into an agreement with an independent social work practice, Mitchell points out it would still need to monitor the work of the practice. This is because, under section 3 of the Children & Young Persons Act 2008, the actions of the practice are to be treated as the actions of the council.

A Department for Education spokesperson confirms: “The statutory provisions on safeguarding remain in place on the council – they are responsible for meeting them whether or not the service is in-house or outsourced. The same inspection regime and intervention powers are also in place.”

Councils will therefore need to monitor outsourced services carefully, to ensure they are meeting their statutory duties. Not doing so could result in a director of children’s services – a role created essentially to be a legal buck stop – being accountable for services provided by a company over which they will have limited power.

This could prove to be a huge risk. It remains to be seen how many would feel confident enough to take it.

Some point to the example of Stoke-on-Trent Council, however. Its children’s services were deemed unacceptable and ministers appointed the company Serco to act as senior managers of the authority’s children’s services for three years. An Ofsted report last year was positive and said the company had accelerated improvements.

But risks over liability and quality of service are not the only concerns people have raised.

Ann Baxter, chair of the health, care and additional needs committee at the Assocation of Directors of Children’s Services, warns that “the more bodies there are working with children, the more fragmented the system could potentially become – there are dangers relating to duplication of effort and barriers to sharing information”.

The risk to the council around its legal responsibilities would need to be well-managed through commissioning, warns John Kemmis, chief executive of the learning disability charity Voice. He says the current commissioning process is a “bureaucratic straitjacket” and repeatedly fails to assess the real costs of providing services, wasting time and squeezing out smaller providers in the process.

“While clearly there are very positive examples of contracted-out services, without doubt the system needs to be overhauled to ensure it is child-centred and provides greater stability to children.”

He is, however, open-minded about the idea – if outside organisations are able to offer a better way of looking after children and of practicing social work.

Andrew Rome, a consultant and former chair of the Independent Children’s Homes Association, is more optimistic. “Contracts should have a clear monitoring regime and a clear statement of what you’re buying. The formality of this process, done well, could actually enhance services and the monitoring of what’s being achieved.”

Commissioning must be open and fair if outsourcing is to be successful, says Tory backbencher Douglas Carswell, who has long advocated the break-up of monolithic services. “If it’s just about giving big contracts to big businesses, where service users cannot easily complain, then it won’t be helpful.”

“There must be an open tendering process which allows smaller contractors to bid too. Value for money doesn’t just come from economies of scale, it also comes from quality of service.”

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