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’.