Outsourcing children’s services may not now be the route to privatisation, but it is still the route to fragmentation and a tenuous accountability. It may also be a case of mis-selling.
The government’s recent u-turn that children’s social services should not be provided by organisations driven by profit is to be welcomed. It would have allowed a money-making motivation to have replaced a public service ethic of helping children and families. But those advocating that children’s social services should be opened up to an unregulated market place have left me confused.
First, there is the chief social worker for children and the chair of the Department for Education’s innovation programme. They both promote the opportunity that not-for-profit organisations should be able to provide unregistered, uninspected and unregulated children’s social services because this would promote creativity, imagination and new ways of working.
But this does not require a change in statutory regulations. Local authorities have a long track record of working in partnership with, and contracting services from, voluntary organisations, and these organisations have a rich history of innovation.
So why suggest that a change of regulation is necessary to allow this to happen?
Examples are also given about how the change in statutory regulation would allow multi-professional services and teams to be developed. Building multi-professional services is a sensible way forward, but it is already happening.
Within statutory agencies and other organisations there are children’s centres, youth justice services, services for disabled children, and more recently multi-agency safeguarding hubs and multi-agency assessment and investigation teams providing multi-professional services.
Again, it does not require a change in statutory regulation, so why is this change being driven by government ministers and promoted by the chief social worker and the chair of the children’s services innovation programme?
Perhaps more obvious and understandable is the support being given to the proposed statutory change by the big, but not the smaller often community-based and generated, voluntary organisations.
Action for Children and the NSPCC have been supportive of the proposed regulatory change. They may see opportunities for growth ahead, with more services contracted out by local authorities, including the assessment, decision-making and care management roles undertaken by social workers working with children and families in difficulty and danger.
Unless the regulation is changed, local authorities will still have the direct responsibility for, and will be required to provide, child in need and child protection investigations, assessments and decision-making, including the decision of making an application to the court.
None of the advocates for a change in statutory regulation are mentioning this fundamental proposed change – that local councils will be able to contract out these key statutory responsibilities to unregulated and unregistered organisations.
These organisations may have no local roots, knowledge or commitment, senior managers may be hundreds of miles away, and there will be the churn and change of organisations coming and going as contracts are re-tendered.
Just look at what has happened in the private care home market for older people. Why is this not being made explicit by those promoting the proposed change in regulation when instead they are using examples about what the proposed change will allow when no change in regulation is necessary?
And why are the Local Government Association (LGA), the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), not speaking about this fundamental change, where crucial decision-making may be taken outside of local government by organisations with only a distant and tenuous contract relationship with councils?
Do at least some council leaders and chief executives see this as a part of their strategy to cut costs and survive the continuing decimation by the government of local council funding? And have those leading local government – councillors, chief executives and service directors – signed up now to the political script that the public sector is inevitably inefficient and moribund so that service innovation and creativity is to be achieved by placing services outside of their direct leadership and management?
The comments above may be way off the mark. They may be provocative, and it is actually my view that children’s services leaders are strongly committed and well-motivated.
Maybe there’s something fundamental I am missing about why there is a need for this radical change in statutory regulation. Maybe it will not allow crucial statutory responsibilities and powers to be transferred to unregulated organisations. If I have got this wrong I do hope my misunderstanding will be corrected quickly by those proposing the regulatory changes.
But all of this is happening with no debate in Parliament and no scrutiny by the Education and Children’s Select Committee. There really does need to be clarification and scrutiny about what is intended and what will be possible if the regulation is changed. It will be too late to retrospectively say ‘oh dear, we did not see this was about to happen’.
- Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London and a former director of social services.