by Tristan Donovan and Andy McNicoll
Unison has called for the government to abandon its plan to allow councils to outsource children’s social care, including child protection.
In its response to the Department for Education’s consultation on the proposal, the union says outsourcing children’s social care would be “a dangerous step” that lacked a democratic mandate and could work against the interests of children.
It urges the government to concentrate on empowering social workers to try new approaches instead.
“Encouraging councils to hark after external contractors for solutions, risks holding innovation back,” said Unison’s response to the consultation, which closes today.
“It allows them to put their energies into the comfort zone of setting up commissioning and client functions, running tendering exercises and designing contract monitoring functions – rather than the difficult business of designing and resourcing services.
“It is social workers themselves who need to lead on developing solutions and be supported to do so.”
The policy, it adds, risks creating a situation where placement providers are also making decisions about children’s needs and placements, which would result in a “conflict of interest” that could work against the interests of children.
Unison’s response also accuses the government of lacking a mandate from Parliament to enact the policy.
“During the passage of the Children and Young Persons Act, the debate in Parliament centered on the desirability of piloting and evaluating small ‘social work practices’ covering looked-after children,” it says.
“However, the effect of the legislation is to allow any external provider to take over the services. That would include profit-making corporations with no track record in social work.
“There was no discussion or debate at the time about extending the powers in the Act to the full range of social work functions including child protection. There is no democratic mandate for this extension.”
Unison’s response to the consultation coincides with a joint letter from several unions warning that the policy is a “privatisation too far” and would distort decisions on child welfare.
The letter, coordinated by public service user campaign group We own it and published in The Guardian, was signed by Unison, Unite and others. It states: “The right to remove children from their parents is perhaps the most serious power the state holds. To pass it to the outsourcing market, as Michael Gove proposes, would distort decisions that should be taken extremely carefully.
“Profit must not come before the welfare of the most troubled children in the country.”
BASW has also made its response to the consultation, warning that there is a lack of evidence the plan would improve children’s social care and arguing that it would encourage councils to seek out the cheapest provider possible and so reduce the quality of services.
BASW’s response adds that outsourcing presents “a serious safeguarding concern” as private sector providers are less scrutinised and regulated than public sector organisations.
“This cannot be right given that whoever provides this service is providing a vital public service paid for by the taxpayer,” it says. “This also flies in the face of recent scandals of ‘for profit’ companies being found wanting in their delivery of public services.”
The government has said the proposals aim to promote innovation in services and say claims of ‘wholescale’ privatisation are misleading.
A group of social work academics, led by Professor Ray Jones of Kingston University, has previously voiced fears that the proposals will lead to child protection services being run by large private companies.
In a separate intervention, Professor Eileen Munro, whose independent review of child protection was published in 2011, said that creating a market in child protection risked introducing perverse incentives for companies to either take more children into care or leave too many in risky situations.
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) has been given extra time by the DfE to make its response but its president Alan Wood has noted that most social workers work in the public sector and there needs to be clarification of how it affects the statutory obligations of local authorities.
Children’s minister Edward Timpson has previously said that claims of ‘wholescale’ privatisation of children’s services are a misrepresentation of the government’s ambitions. Speaking at Community Care Live earlier this month, Timpson said that the proposals aimed to remove legal barriers that were preventing new models of delivering children’s services, such as social work practices.
Timpson said: “We’re not talking about turning children’s services over wholescale to large companies with no expertise in this area, that is very much a misrepresentation of our ambition. Councils already have all sorts of other statutory responsibilities that they don’t provide in-house. They instead draw on the expertise, innovation and capacity of a range of other organisations from the voluntary sector and from small and medium-sized social enterprise, but not so in children’s social work.”