‘The mantra will be that publicly run children’s services are failing and here comes the private sector cavalry’

Social work professor Ray Jones explains why he is firmly against government proposals to privatise children's social care services

Ray Jones
Professor Ray Jones

by Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University

No one, surely, would want to hand responsibility for child protection to private sector organisations, often owned by hedge funds and venture capitalists, whose overriding goal is to make a profit for themselves and who sell their businesses on, or close them down, if they think it is in their best financial interest.

And we know that trying to get these companies to deliver what they promised is often a forlorn and misguided hope. Just think of the debacles of G4S and their abject failure to provide Olympics’ security, G4S and Serco overcharging the government for the tagging of offenders, the concerns arising about the risk of sexual exploitation of women asylum seekers in a detention centre run by Serco, issues with the Serco out-of-hours GP service in Cornwall and the plight of disabled people with their assessments delayed and benefits denied after assessments run by Atos.

But the government is continuing its mission to roll back the welfare state and give businesses and the rich the opportunity to make more money. They have done it with academy schools. They are doing it with health services. It is underway with prisons and the probation service. And Michael Gove and the government are now explicitly intending to open up the opportunity “for all social services functions related to children to be discharged by a third party”.

The only proposed exceptions are the functions of independent reviewing officers, who review the arrangements for children in care and are now driven by the government’s agenda that permanency – meaning mainly adoption – should be sought for children within tight timescales, and that adoption services can only be delegated by a local authority to a registered adoption agency.

Adoption, which is within the personal experience of the secretary of state and the minister for children’s social care, is seen as too valued to be opened up to any provider. Not so child protection and other children’s social work services.

At the same time, it is intended that the ‘third party’ services will no longer, except for adoption, be required to be registered by Ofsted, the national inspectorate for children’s social services, as “this registration process does not offer any genuine additional safeguards and clause 52 of the Deregulation Bill currently before Parliament seeks to remove this requirement”.

So, it is clear. The government is intending that child protection, along with other children’s social work and care services currently provided by councils, should be opened up to the market place and without registration. Maybe some think this means that big voluntary organisations like Barnardo’s, Action for Children and the NSPCC will seek to provide these services.

Under new leadership, often from outside social work, they may well see it as a way of expanding even further. But make no mistake, if there is money to be made, the private sector will move in and take over.

Services will be more fragmented. Management will be at a distance as the organisation will not be locally led. Owners will be unseen and may be in some other country, only looking at the financial spread sheet and bottom line. Local councils will still be left with the responsibility, but trying to fulfil their accountability through contract management.

The lesson of the past is that the private sector organisations will only do what is clearly specified in the contract. They will under-bid to secure the contract and under-deliver by then haggling that what they may have promised is not detailed within the service specification.

And at the same time that the government wants to deregulate the providers of children’s social services, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives is also canvassing for the removal of the statutory regulation that councils are required to have a director of children’s services. They want the freedom “to take a truly ‘whole place’ approach to children and families issues”.

This would open up the possibility that there would be no one in the council at the top level with expertise, wisdom and responsibility for children’s social services and child protection. It also means contracts with other organisations could be set up and managed by contract managers in the council’s corporate centre whose experience may be in setting up contracts for traffic wardens, grass cutting and rubbish collecting and with no background and little knowledge of children’s social work.

And what if local councils decide not to go down this route of contracting out children’s social services? The government can make them. It is already on the cards in Doncaster, Birmingham and Slough, each having been directed by the government to bring in other providers, especially private sector management consultants, and governance arrangements.

These, to date, have been areas where child protection has been judged as ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted. But, as the public sector cuts bite even harder and more families get into difficulty and are destitute, increasing numbers of councils are struggling to provide adequate services. The mantra will be that the public sector is failing, and here comes the private sector cavalry, albeit initially riding the Trojan horses targeted on councils in the most serious difficulty.

This is all largely happening under the public radar. And the ‘consultation’, which was launched on 17 April (the day before Good Friday), only runs until 30 May. This is is a short six-week period disrupted by Easter and the two May Bank Holidays. A good time to bury bad – well, at least controversial, news – and with it all done and dusted before the general election in a year’s time.

And if you do not think that big private businesses will be interested, you may have not spotted that G4S and Serco have already got health and police contracts to undertake the forensic examinations of those who have been sexually abused, including children.

They are also growing their children’s homes business, Serco states that it “leads the Together for Children partnership on behalf of the Department for Education and Skills” and Virgin Care is providing health and social care services for disabled children and their families. A brave new world indeed.

Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London and a former director of social services. He currently oversees child protection services in several areas of England which had been rated by Ofsted as ‘inadequate’.

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4 Responses to ‘The mantra will be that publicly run children’s services are failing and here comes the private sector cavalry’

  1. Ian kemp May 21, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

    The problem with L/A in all areas of social work has been a absolute disaster. The L/A spends millions on a system that is over bureaucratised . Its treatment of its employees is inflexible and inhumane . It relies to much on systems rather than the human touch . It has in my view been a disaster for social work over all . Social work in the context of L/A is a operative job with no professional objectivity . It is largely deskilled . It is over managed and insensitive to its staff . I have worked in over 25 L/A s so have seen what I can only describe as bureaucratic fascism and a process of deskilling . Its been largely about protecting ones back a lot of the time .
    Privatisation Not happy about it but it may be the only way to rescue what is left of social work ??????

  2. mark May 21, 2014 at 2:34 pm #

    “The problem with L/A in all areas of social work has been a absolute disaster” a big assertion with, of course, zero evidence to support it.

    Sounds like someone with a size 12 chip on the shoulder and zero objectivity to me.

    The notion of poor Ian – to hand social work over to Atos, G4S, or Serco – as a means to “rescue” the social work profession says an awful lot. Not about social work in the state sector; but about the content of Mr K’s character or state of mind.

    Every single point Prof Jones made is quite true, well evidenced and clearly argued.

    Removal of children’s services from democratic local control and handing it over to the hedge fund managers would be a disaster for almost everyone. It would especially be a disaster for children.

    It would though be very good for the hedge fund managers.

    Now why would the Tories want to please hedge fund managers? Could it be becasue the Tories get 27% of all their funding from the spivs and specualtiors, hedge fund managers and assett strippers who caused the economic crisis we have still to recover from?

  3. Bryan peake May 21, 2014 at 5:44 pm #

    It seems that the fairlt recent experience of Telford\Shropshire who “outsourced” residential and other Childcare services to a private company (called Sedgemoor I think ?) has been ignored or forgotten? As I recall ,the commissioning LA were left with the a substantial mess to clear up in something of a panic , when the Company , having been taken over by a Hedge fund, apparently decided that continuuing with the contract was too risky and gave the LA’s involved a weekend to relocate the children in their accommodation.I am not sure what happened to the children involved , but it seems little consideration was given to their welfare by the Private sector company!
    We also have more recently discovered of widespread corruption in the US where private firms running Youth detention centres “influence” local judges to deliver increased numbers of custodial centres.
    Seems to me that Professor Jones puts his finger precisely on the issues this raises .

  4. Tony Dougan May 26, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

    Ok firstly Professor Jones is to be thanked for putting his thoughts on this issue with such clarity. He clearly does not labour under any illusions that private capital is anything but bad…well not even bad but…EVIL!
    Capitalism, he considers is characterised by ‘venture capital’ and practically best illustrated by the usual suspects-Serco, Atos and G4S.
    However I will propose that such an analysis, though passionately expressed, is far from accurate, not only in its characterisation of ‘Capital’ as corrupting and incompetent, using only such examples as will prove his own point, but that he has ignored completely any of the recent developments in social entrepeneurialism including radical and local not for profit initiatives that are changing the landscape of big, soulless, corporations running essential services in social care and health.
    ‘Capital’ is not inherently evil, in fact it is not inherently anything other than energy. It is how capital’s energy is directed that takes it into the landscapes of morality.
    The fact is that Local Authority Children’s Services tend to mirror the very worst examples of organisations that the professor cites. They are hierarchical, top-down, command and control structures that operate on the basis of targets and performance. Staff are disempowered and overwhelmed with myriad requirements to fulfill the needs of higher management. Complaints are endemic among users. The human resource environment is oppressive and uncaring with process driven solutions to emotion based issues.
    In addition the work itself is hugely demanding both emotionally and intellectually and physically.
    I have always thought of social workers as heroes, finding solutions and transforming children’s life chances despite their organisations rather than because of them. Subversive heroes rather than rule-followers. Spanners in the works rather than cogs in the machine!

    I strongly feel after many years as practitioner and leader in frontline services that Children’s Social Work is well overdue for a change and that may well be found in a diverse private sector subject to the disciplines of the market but inspired by up to date organisational and entrepeneurial thinking.

    Think about the Integral models inspired by Ken Wilber and an Integral Social Work Practice that embraces real world models of social and human functioning celebrating that diversity and complexity. Think about visionary leaders and entrepeneurs creating new businesses and organisations that not only deliver outstanding services but are joyful places to work. Think about a business where integrity precedes profit but where profit is accounted for. Read ‘Reinventing Organizations’ by Frederic Laloux (20140) and see the examples of companies like the Patagonia Clothing Company and our own Ecotricity that are applying new models of business that privilidge and support human growth and potential.

    I am not suggesting that privatisation is some great good and I share the concerns about incompetence arising from greed or plain stupidity in the examples noted. But for the future’s sake can we not get out of this constant spiral of negativity and blame that has infected Social Work for the past half century and start to embrace new models of delivering services that, in their core nature are at the root of what it is to struggle with the very nature of being human.

    It was Einstein, I think who said, we cannot solve the problems of the future with the same mindset that created them.

    Apologies for going on so but I guess that shows how useful your article has been Ray! I like the cat being put among the pigeons!

    Best wishes,