The government will look to amend the Children and Social Work Bill in a bid to stem fears it will be used to privatise children’s services, Community Care can reveal.
The change will seek to “rule out” the possibility of councils using controversial ‘exemption’ powers included in the legislation to opt out from rules restricting profit-making in children’s services.
A second change will look to introduce a requirement for an expert panel to vet any application made by councils for exemptions from other legal duties so that the potential impact on children and families is assessed.
Both concessions are revealed in a letter sent by Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children, in a bid to ease growing concerns over the exemption clauses ahead of the bill going to the House of Lords next week.
A group of Labour peers has tabled a rival amendment calling for the clauses to be scrapped.
The proposals allow the education secretary to grant councils exemptions for up to three years, with the possibility of a three year extension, in order to “test different ways of working”.
Supporters of the measures say they will help councils pilot innovations and cut “red tape”. But opponents, including a campaign group of more than 30 social care organisations, are calling for the measures to be withdrawn, arguing that they threaten children’s rights and protections.
Concerns have also been raised that by potentially removing statutory requirements, the exemptions could both make services more attractive to third-party providers and allow councils to opt out of rules governing the use of private providers.
In the letter, seen by Community Care, Trowler said the clauses were not intended to “incentivise the privatisation of services”.
“However to put this point beyond doubt we are tabling a government amendment that will explicitly rule out any local authorities being able to use the power to revisit any restrictions on profit making in children’s social care,” she added.
Trowler said the government had listened to concerns that the process for assessing local authority exemptions in the bill was inadequate and changes would be made to tighten scrutiny of applications. New requirements will include:
- The education secretary to consult an expert advisory panel on each application from local authorities for exemptions.
- The advisory panel to contain Ofsted’s chief inspector, the Children’s Commissioner “as well as skilled representatives from the voluntary sector, social work practice and local government, appointed on the basis of their expertise”.
- The advice of the panel to be published “so that the process is transparent and it can inform parliamentary scrutiny of applications to use the power.”
Trowler said the exemptions were a chance to trial changes to a system she feels is currently “overly-bureaucratic”. She said most people agreed with the 2011 Munro review’s assessment that social workers were not being given enough time to do direct work with families.
“If we don’t support this power we can no longer complain that the system is too bureaucratic and that we were hamstrung by legislation,” she said.
The government’s amendments, along with the Labour peers’ call for the withdrawal of the ‘exemption’ clauses, will be considered by the House of Lords next week.