In his recent article for Community Care, Professor Ray Jones suggests that I wish to promote new social care organisations “able to provide unregistered, uninspected and unregulated children’s social services”. I do not. Nor does the government. Nor does the chair of the government’s Innovation Programme (about whom the accusation is also made).
I feel sure Professor Jones has no desire to misrepresent my position or to scaremonger. I can, therefore, only assume he has simply failed to understand the facts. In his article he says that he is “confused” and asks “if I have got this wrong I do hope my misunderstanding will be corrected quickly by those proposing the regulatory changes”. Let me try to do so.
To begin with, Professor Jones refers to the “tenuous accountability” that would result from local authorities working with third party providers. Yet, as he himself acknowledges, there is no proposal at all to remove from local authorities any of their existing statutory functions.
Critical thread of accountability
For local authorities the same legal duties will apply, the same regulations, the same quality standards and, importantly, they will be subject to precisely the same inspection regime whether or not they choose to delegate functions. That critical thread of accountability is unaffected by anything being proposed.
Then, there is the idea of an “unregulated market place” of uninspected social care bodies. Yet this will not be the case under the proposals. Any organisation to which a local authority chooses to delegate any of its statutory functions will be included as part of the existing Ofsted inspection approach and subject to precisely the same regulations and standards that currently apply.
This is not just theory, it is reality. The recent inspection of Staffordshire council (one of the few local authorities currently using the already existing freedoms around looked-after and care leaver functions) included rigorous inspection of the services provided by their social work mutual Evolve YP, which formed part of the council’s overall ‘good’ judgement.
Crucially, the critical decisions and judgements about children’s lives will still be made by social workers and inspection will focus on the difference being made to children’s lives.
Process for change
Professor Jones’ confusion also extends beyond the substance of the proposal to the process for change. It is ironic, for example, that he expresses a view that there is to be no Parliamentary scrutiny of the changes in the very week that the government laid draft regulations in Parliament to begin a lengthy process of scrutiny.
Government – both central and local – is seen by Professor Jones as signing up to a “script”, which states that publicly-run children’s social care is “inefficient and moribund” and that innovation and creativity can only be achieved outside local government.
Whose script is that? It is certainly not mine. Nor is it a script that ministers have used to support these changes, or a view they have ever expressed to me privately. Instead, their view and mine is that no sector – public, private or voluntary – has a monopoly of ideas or creativity or talent. That is precisely why they wish to provide more freedoms for those sectors to work together, harnessing the capacity of all those with an interest in improving the lives of children.
Meanwhile the reverse script is all too clear. So, large voluntary sector bodies like the NSPCC and Action for Children are not seen as mission-driven organisations with proud traditions who might wish to play a more central role in improving the life chances of children. Instead they are portrayed as distant, predatory organisations merely seeking “growth opportunities”.
Local authority leaders welcoming the new freedoms are not seen to be doing so because they aspire to develop new models of excellent care, but because it is “part of their strategy to cut costs”.
And if you assume such motivations, it is all too easy to paint a bleak picture of the future. So, Professor Jones argues that the new third party providers “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”.
That is indeed a bleak picture. Yet it appears to have little to do with reality in those areas that have already used existing freedoms through social work practices: local organisations, grown out of councils with high staff retention and motivation and strong local management.
Professor Jones’ vision of the future is also one of greater “fragmentation”. Yet the proposed freedoms provide new opportunities for local partners to come together – across social care and health for example – in new organisations that break down organisational barriers and can be shaped around the needs of children not institutional divides.
An invitation from government
Any policy change carries risks and opportunities. So, it is quite right that we are having a debate about these proposals and healthy that there was widespread engagement in the recent consultation. As a profession we are taught to assess risk and form a view. But that assessment needs to be informed by the facts and avoid ascribing false motivations to others, which does them a disservice.
More than that, as social workers we are trained not only to assess the likelihood of future events, but to intervene to shape them for the better. These new freedoms provide a chance to do just that. Our role is not to sit back and watch avoidable bleak futures. Our role is to intervene – to seize opportunities, build on strengths and challenge ourselves to shape brighter futures.
These proposals give social workers and their leaders around the country new freedoms and opportunities to design the services we joined the profession to provide. It is an invitation from government to take greater control. It is an invitation we should accept.