by Luke Stevenson and Rachel Schraer
Councils are not taking advantage of ‘freedoms’ to delegate child protection services to third parties under powers introduced by the government last year, a Community Care investigation has found.
The same number of councils have been forced to delegate their child protection services by government as have opted to do so voluntarily.
Only three – Doncaster, Kingston and Richmond – had made use of a controversial change in law that allows councils to delegate statutory duties for child protection services to a third party. A fourth, Slough, has had its children’s services taken over by a children’s trust since the date of our freedom of information request, which was responded to by 127 councils.
In all four cases, children’s services are run by an independent children’s trust or community interest company wholly owned by the councils. Kingston and Richmond jointly set up Achieving for Children to run their children’s services, while Doncaster and Slough were forced to set up children’s trusts by the government following successive inadequate ratings by Ofsted.
More than 20 local authorities had delegated other functions, such as children’s centres and children’s homes, to third parties.
Community Care asked councils whether they had delegated children’s services functions to third party providers since May 2014, when the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 was amended to allow the majority of children’s services to be delegated to not-for-profit third parties.
Initially, the government proposed that local authorities would be able to delegate aspects of their children’s services to any provider, including private ones. However, following a consultation and widespread criticism from the sector, it changed the wording so that local authorities could only delegate to not-for-profit third parties.
The change in regulations
Regulations introduced in 2014 allowed local authorities to delegate almost all of their social services functions relating to children.
This was an extension of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 which had already allowed local authorities to delegate social care functions relating to looked-after children and care leavers to third parties.
The original draft of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 (Relevant Care Functions) (England) Regulations 2014 allowed for profit-making companies to take on child protection functions, but this was altered at this last minute so that corporations have to set up a not-for-profit arm if they wish to bid for delegated functions.
Local authorities remain accountable for delivering their statutory obligations towards children and young people.
The privatisation debate has continued since, with sector leaders accusing government of insulting social workers’ intelligence about privatisation, and academics warning that private companies can still set up not-for-profit subsidiaries to get around the rule.
Lack of appetite
In a Community Care article last year, chief social worker for children and families, Isabelle Trowler, described the powers as “an invitation from government to take greater control”, and said they would “give social workers and their leaders around the country new freedoms and opportunities to design the services we joined the profession to provide”.
The government’s consultation response, where it made the U-turn to only allow services to be delegated to not-for-profit providers, said the move would enable a “a broader range of delivery and reporting structures, enabling greater structural innovation and the harnessing of external expertise in pursuit of improved social work practice and better outcomes for children”.
However, despite the mooted advantages of the new regulations, and recent comments from prime minister David Cameron about the importance that “state monopolies should be broken and new providers with great ideas should be welcomed in” in relation to how the government operates, Community Care has found little appetite from local authorities to engage with these new powers.
The Department for Education (DfE) was asked whether it was surprised that there has been such a lack of appetite for the new rules – which the government faced a lot of criticism to enact – and why it thinks local authorities are not trying to use different models and providers more regularly.
A spokesperson said: “Last year’s legislative change ensures councils have the power to decide how to deliver children’s social care services to best meet the needs of children and families in their area.”
When asked whether having local authorities taken over by children’s trusts is now the DfE’s preferred improvement option, the spokesperson said: “We will not hesitate to intervene robustly in any failure to deliver children’s services effectively – and will do so using the tools which best meet the individual circumstances in the local authorities concerned.”
Gateway to privatisation
Kingston University professor Ray Jones, a prominent critic of the amended act, said the findings did not alleviate his concerns that delegating child protection services would prove a gateway to privatisation.
“It’s all part of a process,” he said. “We know [delegating has] already happened in Doncaster and Slough, Richmond and Kingston and we know Northamptonshire is planning it.
“With further cuts ahead, inspection judgements will be pointing out councils can’t provide adequate services and that opens the floodgates for government to require local authorities to delegate services.”
Jones said the findings showed local authorities were reluctant to delegate child protection services, but added that authorities are increasingly recognising they cannot afford to provide services in-house.
He fears that once services have been taken out of local authorities, despite being still owned by them, it would be easier for private companies to bid for the services when the local authority-owned company or trust’s contract ran out.
He added councils were going to be “coerced and corralled” into delegating their child protection functions.
“Mr Cameron has made it clear the future for these services is not in local government,” Jones said.
Untried and untested
In those local authorities which had delegated functions other than child protection, these included children’s centres, children’s homes and return interviews for children who had gone missing.
The promotion of disabled children’s rights, independent visitor schemes for looked-after children, young carer assessments and leaving care services were also delegated by local authorities across the country. The providers were often national charities, such as Barnardo’s, the National Youth Advocacy Service and Action for Children.
British Association of Social Workers’ professional officer, Nushra Mansuri, said she wasn’t surprised local authorities hadn’t taken up the new powers provided in the act.
“These things are untried and untested,” she said. “How do we know it is the panacea government says it is?”
She added the findings showed most councils were committed to delivering children’s services within their local authority.
“The jury still has to be out on this. It’s a risk for local authorities and it took Slough longer than projected.
“Meanwhile, we’ve got examples of failing local authorities that have turned it around in-house, so we know it can be done.”
But, she said, every local authority was aware its fate depended on its next Ofsted inspection.
“I think the next authority to crash and burn is going to come under a lot of pressure to think about delegating services,” she said.
While there are statutory minimums on staff numbers and time spent with children, Mansuri said, the worry was that if delegated services eventually came into the hands of a private provider, profit margins would encourage a de-skilling of the workforce.
There is a danger providers would hire in cheaper, less qualified staff, and relegate social work to a care management role, she said. Threats to social workers’ terms and conditions could be another way of keeping costs down when employment contracts came up for renewal, BASW fear.