Plans to privatise child protection are moving at pace
The Guardian, by Ray Jones
During 2014, the government continued to move forward with the marketisation and privatisation of children’s social services, including child protection investigations and assessments.
Following considerable public opposition in May to initial proposals, the government issued a revised regulation. It does not stop private sector companies from getting contracts to provide child protection and other children’s social services. What they will now have to do is set up a not-for-profit subsidiary to provide the services. Money can then be made for the parent company by charging its subsidiary for management, administration and estates services at a cost determined by the parent company. This is how the big companies such as G4S and Serco, which thrive on government contracts, will be able to generate their profit. Some have argued this will not happen. How strong are their arguments?
First, it has been argued that no private companies would want to take on high-risk services such as child protection, with all the reputational damage that may be incurred. But this just does not add up. They have, for example, recently been awarded contracts for the supervision of offenders in the community. Serco and G4S are already expanding by opening residential children’s homes. And in at least one area of England Serco and G4S together have the contract for the forensic examination of children who may have been sexually abused.
It is said that this is all about innovation, and indeed the government has set up an innovation fund to stimulate new models and approaches in children’s social care, with specific encouragement for local authorities “to provide its children’s services through a third party organisation” and “look to test the validity of an independent model (ie, one commissioned, but not directly provided, by the local authority)”.
But local authorities have a considerable positive track record of innovation and change. It does not require outsourcing and private companies to be given contracts to generate innovation. Indeed, the lesson of outsourcing public services is that it often freezes out future innovation; only that which is stated within the contract will be carried out.
Neither will an influx of management consultants with no expertise or experience in children’s services be helpful. A recent education department briefing invited tenders of “expert advisers who will provide improvement support and challenge to local authorities who have underperforming children’s social care services”. This states that advisers may have relevant experience in children’s social services and local government, but presumably the may means this is not a requirement.
Those attending the briefing included G4S, KPMG, Mouchel and Amey. The latter two are best known as construction and engineering companies, and neither seems to have much or any experience or expertise in providing children’s services or child protection.
It is argued that the creation of a market for children’s social services is a result of the failure of local councils to provide adequate services. Why might this be so? Since 2008 child protection investigations have increased by 60%, child protection plans managed by local councils by 50%, and local authority care proceeding applications to the courts by 104%.
At the same time the government is dramatically reducing local authority funding. Big reductions already, with the Local Government Association noting that there will be a further 8.8% cut starting in April. There are regular stories about children’s services being cut and closed, child protection thresholds getting higher, Ofsted reporting high workloads are a problem in local authorities, and an understandable difficulty in recruiting and retaining social workers.
If the government wanted to undermine local councils’ children’s services it could not do better than follow the current strategy. This is reinforced by the requirement that serious case reviews into the abuse or neglect of a child allocate “accountability” (blame) to agencies and workers. This then allows the argument to be made for opening up a market and promoting “innovation” in children’s social services.
Finally, an argument has been made that no local council would want to contract out its children’s services, and especially not child protection responsibilities, when the authority still holds the statutory responsibility.
But some councils look to contract out these services because of an ideological commitment, and think others outside of what they see as local government bureaucracy will do it better. This is a damning indictment about the confidence and competence of these councils and councillors. In addition, some councils are already seeing this as a part of the solution to the government’s funding cuts. Contract out the services and require others to provide them more cheaply (which will have to be largely achieved by employing fewer, less well paid or less qualified workers, as workforce is the major cost within these services).
And even if councils do not want these crucial services to leave their direct local democratic control and accountability, the government can direct that local authorities should no longer control or provide the services. The government is already taking this action.
Last year saw considerable progress in opening up child protection and other children’s social services to the marketplace, with great promise that (unopposed) the pace will pick up in 2015. The government has been clear about its ambition to reduce public services and to create the opportunities for private companies to receive public funding. It is happening already for prisons, probation, police, the health service, benefits assessments and schools. It may have been thought that, as for the rest of the world, child protection was a step too far. Not for this government. But what is even more surprising is that it has moved ahead unopposed by Labour and largely under the public and professional radar.