The stealth privatisation of children’s services

Ray Jones looks back on what happened to the privatisation of children's services in 2014, something he says many social workers still aren't aware of

Photo: Gary Brigden

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?

‘Considerable risk’

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.


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6 Responses to The stealth privatisation of children’s services

  1. Andrew MacDonald January 8, 2015 at 7:19 am #

    Dear Ray Jones, Thanks for this, Those of us up North also value your contributions.

    Had you time or space to comment on the TTIP I’m sure you would warn us of a threat:;

    Might you speak at Compass NW Show in Manchester on Monday 11 May via BASW?

    Might you speak again at CC Live in London later in May? Northerners will visit by rail.

    We may again enjoy a Turkish meal in Finsbury and a play and meal elsewhere.

    Not long back from Palestine with PALUK SW Network; Jane Lindsay came too.

    Regards, Andrew MacD, Member of BASW PEHR, hcpc SW34578 (easy no for olders)

  2. Jim Greer January 8, 2015 at 5:11 pm #

    I have commented elsewhere that I think that social workers need to gear up to thinking about forming private practices. I said that this was a good opportunity for social workers to become more independent in their decision making. This was interpreted by some as indicating that I favoured privitisation. This is not the case. I do not favour private companies taking over this work. I do still believe that there can be positive opportunities if social workers take charge and form their own practices.
    I think that outsourcing is definitely going to happen so I think it would be better that social workers took the reins rather than leaving it in the hands of the private sector. Outsourcing has been the direction of travel for all public services for the past few decades under Labour and Conservative. It will eventually come to the HEI sector I work in too. High tuition fees and student debt will lead to pressures for creative ways of reducing costs. For those of us who expect to work for a significant amount of years into the future we need to think about what the implications of these changes will be for our work and how we will respond to them. By all means we can protest but we need a Plan B too.
    The response of Labour to Child Protection outsourcing is telling. They have not lifted a finger to stop it. With no political support from either major party it is difficult to see how these trends can be reversed.
    I think therefore we should as at least start preparing social workers and students to think about how they can adapt to changing conditions in a way which will give them more power to safeguard their own professionalism and develop their work in a way which is consistent with the values of our profession. It certainly offers a better hope of offering positive outcomes for workers and service users than just chuntering while we are taken over by private companies.
    We have a narrow window of opportunity to develop alternative models to ownership by big companies.

  3. Lynne Scannell January 8, 2015 at 6:25 pm #

    Let’s outsource all public services. After all ,profit is the main reason to providing any sort of services. Absolute rubbish!!! A society must be judged by how it’s vulnerable is regarded and served. Without power the weak young ill older disabled etc can never rely on their power to gain good services. This is surely where a decent society puts in safeguards to protect those sectors of our communities who cannot, sometimes temporarily, protect their own interests since they can’t offer incentives or indeed profits.

  4. Simon Cardy January 10, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

    In reply to Jim Greer

    Outsourcing is far more likely to happen if we let it. I accept that the odds at present are not in our favour but your ecological approach is not only defeatist but flawed. You make some kind of distinction between ‘social workers taking the reins and forming ‘their own practices’ and going down that road before private companies take over this work. Such a distinction is a myth – there is none – which is what Ray Jones excellent article is in part, saying.

    Taking the most basic entry level PCF critical and evidenced based approach, you provide no evidence or argument as to how social workers will ‘become more independent in their decision making’ – you simply claim it – which is fine – but I don’t see how you substantiate it.

    I say you need to place your ‘plan B’ in the context of ‘practice realities’: which is that independent social work entities – be they private companies or quasi mutual’s – will be heavily circumscribed by the local authority contacts. These will require compliance with performance targets and indicators. They also will not last very long – 3-5 years. No sooner than you have secured a contract you would be battling for the next one – taking precious social work time and energy away from ‘spending more time with services users’. Unless you have some other income stream – generated either by some profit making enterprise (more time away from service users) or wealthy philanthropic backer such as Ark – you will have to meet these requirements first before you could exercise any authentic independence in thought or decision making.

    Secondly, my observation – looking at your use of language in the absence of your evidence – is it’s remarkable similarity with those in the government (and the previous government as Ray Jones points out). Time and time again ministers and government advisors such as Professor Julian Le Grand (recently knighted for services to neo-liberalism) have said ‘this is not privatisation’. As Ray Jones so sharply observes about the revised regulations – as he is following them (as he urges us to) with every twist and turn that the government make – it’s a smoke screen The government’s climb down is nothing more than a temporary retreat in the ‘war of position’ as Gramsci would say.

    You are falling into their trap by making identical claims that there is some kind of non-profit oasis where G4S and Virgin Care are prohibited from operating. The children’s minister Edward Timpson said at Community Care Live ‘That law means that children’s social workers have been denied the freedoms that other professionals have enjoyed for decades…we want these freedoms available in children’s social care as well’.

    I cannot in all honesty see how significantly different the position you are taking – about the need for social workers to ‘take the reins’ before G4S do – is really that much different from Edward Timpson’s.

    • Jim Greer January 12, 2015 at 8:02 pm #

      Here a few Potential Benefits of being independent that I could think of. I am sure that others will be able to come up with more.
      1. Being able to manage your own relationship with local media and the local community rather than having to depend on local authority PR departments who often understand little about social work. This includes publicising and explaining your work and responding to media stories with a professional social worker opinion rather than a local authority press release. Some local authorities do let social workers respond to media stories- many do not.
      2. Being able to buy your own IT equipment including iPads or lap tops and take responsibility for the security of it rather than having to accept overly cautious local authority IT policies.
      3. Ensuring that all your employees or partners get supervision from a qualified social worker.
      4. The possibility of developing private counselling services, supervision services etc which could cross subsidise intitiiatives in the local community such as group work with teenagers.
      5. Being in charge of your own destiny.
      I can’t offer evidence that these things ( or many others) are possible but then nobody offered Richard Branson, Martin Luther King or Thomas Barnado any evidence they would be successful either.
      Dentists, lawyers and many other Professionals recognise the value of working independently. Just because social workers have always been employees of local authorities does not mean they always have to be or that this is the only way of practicing. There are some advantages in working for a Local authority in terms of stable employment, a decent pension scheme etc and the value of these things should not be underestimated. However, it is not utopia either and the regular articles in Community Care about social worker stress suggest that it is currently not enjoyable for a large number of people.
      By the way in relation to your comments about my use of language- I have no axe to grind either financially or in any other way. I would just like to see a more open minded approach and a wider set of opinions expressed by members of my profession. In my career I have been an accountant and a project manager as well as being a social work manager and a front line social worker of considerable experience. I have had to adapt and change as economic and political conditions have. Fortunately social work training is an ideal training for developing that flexibility. More so than any other professional training I am aware of.
      The students I am responsible for will have potentially 40 years of work ahead of them. They will need to be able to adapt and change to different economic and social conditions across their career just as I have. Giving them a message that there is only one type of employment that can deliver good social work or telling them that they are passive victims of ‘neoliberalism’ is not going to help them build a fulfilling career.

  5. finola moss January 11, 2015 at 12:45 am #

    It is the object of this government to privatise all public services.

    This is not real privatisation with competition between service providers, checks on quality and accountability to the service user.
    , .
    There is no rated. public

    The public service providers, are large, cultish, privatised anonymous monopoly outsourcing corporations, owned by venture capitalists.

    Unaccountable, easily dissolvable, and reincarnated.

    They are merely agents. They do nothing but outsource people, usually of short term contracts or zero hours. And then claim extortionate amounts for doing so.

    Those that do the actual work, are itinerant, prescribed and easily disposable .

    Already social workers are employed like this. I believe half of those in Kent are European workers.

    Social work has been changed, to a top down machine, enforcing government policy.
    It is no longer a profession or vocation. The social worker has been forced to become, a deskilled tool, to make as much profit as possible, from welfare/social care, out of the public purse.

    The care courts, rubber stamp social services care decisions, so the outsourcers, be they SERCO, CAPITA or other letter, can create their own, ever increasing market,, now 72,000 in care, each foster parent paid 600 per week per child, and £27,000 fee is paid per child adopted.

    All in secret.

    And, who can, or will complain about the services, the parents and children can’t?

    Children services is therefore, a multibillion pound industry, with the perfect buisness model, ripe to be exploited by investors.

    We have seen 14,000 children raped in Rotherham alone, and nothing has been done, and their child protection services, were not run by an outsourcing cabal, with itinerant deskilled workers.

    That is why, it is irrelevant how corrupt and incompetent the outsourcer is, ie SERCO had to pay 70 million back to government, and investigated by fraud squad.

    As this is not about protecting our most vulnerable, but about making money.