by Ray Jones, Professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London.
It is just over a year since the coalition Government allowed local councils to contract out their social work services and decision making for children in care, despite doubts and no firm evidence in support of this policy from the research on the short-term pilots.
And it is nine months since there was a hasty and rushed consultation about allowing the outsourcing of child protection and other children’s services.
Following media coverage last May about the government’s intentions to allow the privatisation of all children’s social work services, there was a public outcry and more than 70,000 people signed petitions opposing the government’s intentions.
The response to the government’s consultation was overwhelming, 94% of more than 1300 responses opposed the privatisation of these services.
And then something quite shocking happened. The government said it had heard the concerns and made a statement that private companies would not be able to get the contracts.
It was hailed as a victory by many. But within days the government issued a revised draft regulation. It got little media coverage and even now social workers and the public are largely unaware that private companies will be able to get contracts to provide child protection and other children’s services.
How companies can still make profit
What the private companies will have to do is set up a non-profit subsidiary. But the parent private company will be able to determine the policies and practices of its subsidiary and also charge the subsidiary whatever the parent company determines for the services – like buildings, administration, IT etc – the subsidiary is required to buy from its parent.
This is how the profit will be made for the international venture capitalists and other rich share holders and no doubt over time with highly paid management accountants as the top managers in these companies.
To see how this works, just look at how the owners and sponsors of academy chains can make money out of ‘non-profit’ academy schools.
But surely this dramatic and radical change would be the subject of much professional debate? Surely it would receive considerable attention in Parliament? Surely it would be opposed by Labour? Surely it would attract much media and public attention?
No other country anywhere allows decisions about the protection of children to be contracted outside of public services and the state’s immediate responsibility.
Nowhere else takes the considerable risk of these services only being accountable back to the government or local authorities through a contract. Why not? Well just look at how G4S, SERCO, A4e, and ATOS have let down the public so badly on their expensive profit-generating contracts for the tagging of offenders, provision of out-of-hours GP services, helping long-term unemployed people into work, and the welfare benefits assessments of disabled people.
Is it sensible to place child protection and other children’s social services in the same jeopardy?
In England what is intended by the government is even more extreme. Not only is it planned that these companies should be able to get the contracts. It is also intended that they will not be registered, regulated or inspected when providing these services.
When the regulation which opens up children’s social services to the market place was considered in September by a Parliamentary committee Labour did not oppose it. Instead there was a statement from a Labour MP that “if people’s worse fears are realised and these measures prove to be the route to fragmentation, unaccountable, unregulated provision, riddled with conflicts of interest and dubious financial incentives, a future Government will have to repeal them. By that time, however, thousands of children might have suffered needlessly”.
This is a pretty good analysis of the concerns about what is ahead. All the more surprising, therefore, that there was submission by Labour with what is intended.
‘Under the professional and public radar’
Somewhat brazenly and bizarrely, at the same time at the beginning of September that this Parliamentary committee met, and ahead of the proposed regulatory changes coming into force, the government was already acting to stimulate the market to take on children’s social services.
A seminar, with its organisation contracted out by the Department for Education (DfE) to three companies of management and market consultants, was attended, by invitation only, by companies such as Virgin Care and Amey. The seminar considered how ‘newcos’ could be encouraged to take on children’s social services and what actions were necessary to make the market attractive for these ‘newcos’.
A recent December DfE briefing for potential children’s services ‘social care advisors’ to work for the DfE in areas judged ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted included attendance by G4S, KPMG, and by Amey and Mouchel – the latter to date better known as building and construction companies.
During the past two months I have spoken at conferences attended by what is probably in excess of 2,000 social workers. When asked, very few said they knew that children’s social work services were being opened up to the market.
It is a radical change and it seems to be moving ahead under the professional and public radar.