Are the government’s much-publicised plans to introduce innovation in children’s services a means of allowing private sector involvement in child protection? Some have argued so, but as the chief executive of the Adolescent and Children’s Trust (Tact), the landscape looks different to me.
It could be argued that the Department for Education has fudged the rules to allow private companies to sneak in under a social enterprise disguise. But I doubt any local authorities will be fooled by this over-familiar wolf in sheep’s clothing. And, coming from a charity looking to work more closely with local authorities, I see a host of opportunities for innovative local authorities and entrepreneurial charities to work together to improve outcomes for our most vulnerable children.
Like Ray Jones, who recently argued that the privatisation of child protection is continuing apace, I agree that the private sector has no place making profit out of children’s social care. But evidence for Jones’s claim seems scant, and regardless, that ship sailed years ago. Residential and foster care have been provided by private profit-making companies for years. Venture capitalists, private investors and even overseas pensions funds are taking millions a year out of shrinking children’s social care budgets. This is a situation that has to be addressed and the new guidelines offer a way to do that and more.
Tact, the UK’s largest fostering and adoption charity, offers good and outstanding permanence options for children across the UK. Our expertise and sole focus is the recruitment and support of excellent foster carers and adopters for some of our society’s most vulnerable children. Our sole focus is on providing these services.
By partnering with innovative local authorities, we can offer to manage these services on their behalf, leaving them free to focus on complex frontline child protection work and offer them, over the medium term, potentially significant savings to invest in this work.
I am not saying that innovative and outstanding practice only exists in the voluntary sector, but neither is a belief that statutory services have all the answers, if only they were funded properly, credible. It is through honest, open partnership that the best results can be achieved.
Having had extensive experience of commissioning services and building projects as a local authority manager, I am not convinced that the present public sector commissioning framework gives the best pathway to developing the services required. It is only through honest discussions and co-designing that the services children need can be developed and successfully run. For this reason, I think the issue is not that G4S-lite is being allowed in, but that the way in which services are commissioned needs to be re-imagined. Procurement rules must allow local authorities and charities to engage in a joint endeavour to design permanence services that achieve the best possible outcomes for children. This process is not the same as contracting out refuse collection or recycling.
There is much to be optimistic about in children’s social work in 2015. Developments in the Frontline social work training programme, the innovation fund and the new statement of skills and knowledge are all reasons to believe the social work profession can take control of services and improve outcomes. The opportunities for proper partnership between far-sighted local authorities and committed charities and social enterprises is another building block.
Through all these developments we can reclaim social work from the long-term neglect of government bureaucracy and use our expertise as strong and confident social workers to transform outcomes for the vulnerable children, young people and families we serve.
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