Warning over ‘murky’ government plans for children’s social work practices

Legislation that will allow councils to outsource services for looked-after children to any organisation could have unintended consequences that will disadvantage children, says Unison

Practices could be 'to the detriment of children', warns Unison

You’d be forgiven for thinking that social work practices for children in care had quietly disappeared. Dreamt up by government advisor Julian Le Grand back in 2007, the practices were billed as a bureaucracy-slashing revolution that would empower practitioners and beef up the continuity of care by moving looked-after children’s services out of local authorities and into independent, GP-style practices run by social workers.

In practice, Le Grand’s brainchild had a difficult birth. The government struggled to find interested local authorities in England and Wales, despite the cheques dangled in front of them, while some of the authorities that did sign up later withdrew from the process. And while the pilots survived the change of government, the evaluation reached conclusions that even the Department for Education calls “mixed”.

‘Councils allowed to outsource services to any organisation’

But instead of shelving the idea, the government has decided to take it one step further. On 13 May, the DfE announced it would change the law to allow councils to outsource support and placement services for looked-after children and care leavers to any external organisation, not just the GP-style practices originally imagined.

A spokesperson says the change will benefit local authorities: “It will give all councils the opportunity to be more flexible in the way they look after children in their care. It follows a four-year pilot at local authorities, which concluded that performance was at least as good or in some cases, better than the in-house council provision.”

From the government’s perspective, the evaluation – despite its mixed conclusions – shows looked-after children do just as well with outside providers as with their local authority.

But Nicky Stanley of the University of Central Lancashire, who headed the evaluation team, is uncomfortable with that reading of the research. “While some of the pilots did come up with some innovative practice they didn’t consistently outperform the local authority comparison sites,” she says.

How will the law change?

Rather than being added to a bill and debated in Parliament the changes will be made as a legislative reform order.

These orders allow ministers to change existing laws provided certain conditions are met, such as the government having consulted widely on the change.

In this case the law being altered is the time-limited clause in the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 that enabled the pilots to be run, but this expires in November. Although it applied to England and Wales, the Welsh government has rejected the new proposals and decided to let the law lapse there.

Legislative reform orders are assessed by Parliament’s Regulatory Reform Committee, which is mainly concerned with ensuring the necessary conditions have been met, rather than the merits of the reform.

If the committee members approve the order, it is likely to become law with almost no debate. This is a real concern, Union has warned.

‘Government misinterpreting the research’

“I don’t feel the evidence was strong enough to warrant a major reorganisation of the way services for looked-after children are delivered. Not all the social work practices were able to deliver high-quality services for children. In some cases the services delivered were not of high-quality.”

The pilots relied too much on council expertise in areas like child protection to really be independent, Stanley notes. “In only one case did a pilot manage the placement budget themselves. It’s very hard to see how the pilots would have functioned without the support and expertise of the local authorities.”

There was also “a lot of disruption” for children involved in the pilots, she adds, even though reducing disruption was an aim of the social work practice model.

There were some benefits, however, with both professionals and parents saying practice staff had more time to devote to each case, while children were less likely to face a change of key worker. But such benefits could have been achieved within local authorities, Stanley says.

“There did not seem to us to be any reason why local authorities couldn’t do well on these things given the resources…Where there was success, they were able to give their staff restricted caseloads with a tighter remit where they focused entirely on looked-after children and weren’t distracted by the demands of child protection work.”

‘Plans could lead to conflicts of interest for children and taxpayers’

The new plans will enable local authorities to delegate looked-after children’s services to any type of external organisation. It could be a social work practice, but there’s nothing to stop councils turning to large charities or businesses instead. In short, adoption, fostering and other looked-after children’s services could be farmed out to anyone that the local authority regards as fit to run it.

“Our concern is that you will end up with large multi-purpose contractors moving into this area,” says Helga Pile, national officer for social work at Unison. This, she warns, could lead to conflicts of interest that could work to the detriment of looked-after children and taxpayers.

“You could have a situation where a provider who employs people to support looked-after children, and find placements for them, could be the same company or a subsidiary of a company that is also providing placements. So, there could be some murky incentives in there.”

‘Plans likely to favour big contractors’

Questions about the financial viability of small practices, identified in the evaluation, will also favour larger providers, Pile adds. “The evaluation suggested most commissioners found practices were no cheaper or more expensive to run than if you keep it in house, so we fear practices will struggle and we’ll ultimately end up with big contractors moving in. It’s interesting to see that one of the 12 organisations that responded to the consultation on this was Virgin Care.”

A spokesperson for Virgin Care said the company supports a model that provides “long-term care planning and delegation of responsibilities that enables a broad range of options rather than being limited to the social work practice model”. He added: “While we acknowledge the importance of being clear about responsibility and accountability this proposal will allow local authorities to have a wider choice of opportunities for children in care enabling them to drive up the quality of services.”

The change will also mean providers of these services will not be subject to individual Ofsted inspections. Instead, they will be inspected as part of wider local authority inspections for looked-after children.

The DfE says this will remove red tape: “As Ofsted has said they will inspect all services that providers are running on the behalf of councils through their new, more rigorous framework, we are removing the now unnecessary requirement for providers to register with them separately. This will reduce bureaucracy so more time and money can be focused on providing high-quality care.”

‘Doubts over inspection changes and lack of clarity’

Others are uncomfortable with this change, however. “We don’t believe the new framework is sufficient to monitor performance,” says Ellen Broome, policy director at The Children’s Society. “It will only look at a small number of cases so they might not be able to pick up on issues of high staff turnover, monitoring of outcomes or children’s ability to influence decisions about their care.”

Virgin Care’s spokesperson said that, while the inspection regime is a matter for government, it supports, “Ofsted-style inspections on individual providers wherever possible since this model provides the local authority, children, families and the public with assurance of the quality of specific provision”.

But even without the inspection changes, Broome doubts allowing local authorities to outsource this kind of work will help looked-after children. “There is a lack of clarity about whether social work practices better meet the needs of looked-after children and young people,” she says. “There has been a lack of focus on the outcomes for children compared to the work done before.”

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