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Outsourcing children’s services is not a quick fix

Another council – Sandwell – has been ordered by the government to contract out its statutory children’s social work services.

This means services including child protection investigations, making applications to the courts to have children removed from their families and the management of children in need plans will be outsourced to an independent organisation, and accountability back to the council will be through a contract.

No other country allows this intrusion into families, and decisions about the welfare and protection of children, to be undertaken outside its direct provision and control. This raises a number of issues of considerable concern.

First, as this process of local councils being directed by the education secretary to give up direct provision of statutory children’s social work gathers pace – apparently unchecked by the new prime minister – it is one of the mechanisms delivering the government’s agenda that children’s social work services should be outside local authorities. It is a Trojan horse opening up children’s social services to the marketplace.

David Cameron spoke of wanting the “academisation” of statutory children’s social work services with new “market insurgents” to take over services. Despite the political tangle with Conservative councillors about the forced academisation of all schools, there has been no sign that the removal of children’s social work from councils has been put on the back burner.

Furthermore, all the local authorities that have been forced or coerced into contracting out statutory responsibilities for the welfare and safety of children have been Labour controlled – Doncaster, Slough, Sunderland, Birmingham and now Sandwell.

This is surprising, indeed shocking, when there are Conservative-controlled councils that have had equal or even greater difficulties with children’s services. They have had repeated Ofsted judgments of inadequate, have struggled to recruit and retain social workers, with no consistent leadership, and backlogs of assessments of children and big and expanding workloads for practitioners.

I know about the tremendous commitment by managers and workers in these councils to make improvements, and they need the time and stability to be able to do so. I am certainly not arguing that they should have the disruption and disorganisation of having their social work services taken outside their councils. But what is a particular concern is that Sandwell, where I oversaw child protection improvement from 2012-15, should now be set back.

Sandwell had built a stable workforce, management and leadership; was largely in control of its busy workloads, and had processes in place to improve practice (which takes time and a continuing focus). It has had an experienced and respected independent chair of its local safeguarding children’s board, good partnership working with other organisations, and sensible political governance and oversight. Its children’s social work services and committed practitioners and managers will now be undermined and destabilised.

The third issue is that taking these services outside of councils is not a quick fix or easy solution. Indeed, it stalls and delays the actions to drive improvement. Instead of a strong focus on frontline practice, building an organisational culture supporting this practice with senior managers close to their frontline services, and creating a stable workforce with strong partnerships and collaboration with other agencies, for the first year or so attention and time is given to creating the new organisation and the contract arrangements.

This should be recognised by the small number of former senior managers in children’s services who are advising that services should be removed from councils, and who have then been contracted to have key roles in setting up these new trusts.

The experienced Conservative council leader who was the Local Government Association lead for children’s services says the way to assist councils in difficulty is to deploy successful councils’ wisdom and expertise to help other authorities. The government has allowed this approach, with good results, for some – mainly Conservative controlled – local authorities.

This is sensible and constructive. It has not been allowed, however, for the Labour councils moving children’s social work into a marketplace open to all comers.

In the past, affluent philanthropists committed money to help the poor and those in difficulty. Now rich venture capitalists and others seek to make a profit from public funding, which should be available to fund services and assistance.

If the government’s concern is about poor or unhelpful political leadership within a small number of councils – and this is not exclusive to Labour councils and it certainly did not apply in Sandwell – there is the remedy of appointing a commissioner to oversee and direct children’s social services provision. It is less disruptive and draconian than removing services from the council and from local accountability, delivery and transparency.

As more councils struggle to deliver statutory children’s social work services, the government may well use this as an opportunity to promote the market place of “newcos” and “market insurgents”.

Surely it is about time for the political opposition to challenge this ideological ambition, especially when it is Labour councils being forced to deliver the agenda. Or maybe the new prime minister will think it a step too far to allow profit to be made from vulnerable children and families and that these services should remain a direct state responsibility delivered through local councils.

As a start, the prime minister and education secretary might take note of the wise and well-informed education select committee report on social work (pdf) and comments in the Lords debate on the children and social work bill, which argue against the rush to move statutory children’s social work and child protection outside of local authorities.

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Article source: https://www.theguardian.com/social-care-network/2016/oct/07/outsourcing-childrens-services-sandwell-council

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