Theresa May and Justine Greening must reject controversial policies that open the door to commercialisation and for-profit provision of social services
The long-awaited LaingBuisson report on creating a marketplace for children’s social services in England has at last been published by the Department for Education. Why the delay? What is now clear is that ministers may have thought it too hot to handle. At the same time as it was quietly published, the government issued a statement distancing itself from some of the key options presented.
The report’s title – The potential for developing the capacity and diversity of children’s social care in England – is a little misleading. In essence, it is a report on how to promote the marketisation and potential commercialisation of statutory children’s social services.
There is nothing on how local authorities might increase their own in-house capacity to deliver children’s social care services. It is all about how arrangements outside local authority direct provision can be stimulated, and indeed may be required, by the government.
This is another step on the journey initiated by David Cameron to move statutory children’s social services outside local government (and, by extension, local accountability and transparency), albeit the first moves were made in 2006 by Tony Blair.
Professor Julian Le Grand is the architect of this initiative. He, along with Isabelle Trowler, the government’s chief social worker for children, and Alan Wood, a frequent government adviser, were the DfE’s advisory panel overseeing the report’s preparation. Each has previously expressed support for opening up children’s social services to a wider range of profit and non-profit providers.
Does the government’s apparent disavowal of the report’s findings signal that the tide is turning, or is Theresa May just preparing the flood defences against a wave of opposition?
The coalition government got into deep water with public opposition in 2014, when it proposed changes in statutory regulations so that any organisation or company could be contracted to take decisions about the welfare and safety of children. G4S, Serco, Amey, Mouchel and Virgin Care attended meetings arranged by the DfE to explore how they might become more involved in shaping and providing children’s social services.
Rather disingenuously, the government stated then, and continues to assert now in its response to the LaingBuisson report, that “we reject those options which would allow … profit-making organisations to deliver [statutory children’s social services]”. If this is the current government’s position it should amend the 2014 regulatory change that allows profit-making businesses, such as the big outsourcing companies, to provide these services on contract. They have to set up a not-for-profit subsidiary, but the parent company can then make its profit by providing facilities and services to its subsidiary at whatever price is set by the parent company.
What LaingBuisson was tasked to do was “explore the potential for developing capacity and diversity of children’s social care services in England”. Its report is based on the un-tested and un-evidenced assumption that “transformation [of children’s social services] itself brings longer-term benefits for the service user” and an “expectation of improved outcomes in the medium to long term”.
This is a staggering assertion. Rather than continuity, coherence and cooperation across local agencies that are reasonably well-resourced and stable, the claim is that churn, change and fragmentation across a more dispersed marketplace of providers will inevitably generate service improvement. This fits, however, with the government’s mantra that “innovation” is the answer to a 90% increase in child protection workloads over the past eight years as funding to local authorities has reduced by 40%.
The LaingBuisson report is well worth a read. Its international comparisons reveal that nowhere else apart from England does the state look to contract out crucial assessments and decision-making about the safety and protection of children. The report also shows how much of children’s social services, such as children’s homes (66%), foster care (47%) and social workers (14%), are already provided through independent, largely profit-making, companies.
The distance sought by the current government from this report, commissioned while David Cameron was prime minister and Michael Gove education secretary, might provide some relief. Theresa May and Justine Greening have the opportunity to set their own course. They inherited policies that are controversial with the public and seen as high risk by those who work to assist families and protect children. As with the children and social work bill, which is generating widespread public, professional and parliamentary opposition, now is a good time to pause, reflect and engage with those working within children’s social services.
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