Reposted from the Guardian
The proposal from Michael Gove‘s Department for Education (DfE) to permit the outsourcing of children’s social services to companies such as G4S and Serco has alarmed experts. They say profit-making companies should not be in charge of such sensitive family matters, and warn that the introduction of the profit motive into child protection may distort the decision-making process.
A DfE consultation paper published last month argues that enabling local authorities to outsource children’s social services will encourage innovation and improve outcomes for at-risk youngsters.
Private providers will allow authorities to “harness third party expertise” and “stimulate new approaches to securing improvements” for safeguarding services outside “traditional hierarchies”, the document says.
Professor Eileen Munro, whom Gove commissioned to carry out an independent review of child protection published in 2011, said establishing a market in child protection would create perverse incentives for private companies to either take more children into care or leave too many languishing with dangerous families.
“It’s a bad idea,” she told the Guardian. “It’s the state’s responsibility to protect people from maltreatment. It should not be delegated to a profit-making organisation.”
Some 10,600 youngsters were subject to care applications to the family courts in 2013. Another 43,000 were on English council child protection registers in 2013, meaning they were monitored by social workers because they were considered to be at risk of neglect, or sexual, emotional or physical abuse. About 68,000 children were in the care system in England in 2013.
Separately, a letter published in the Guardian today and signed by 37 senior social services academics led by professor Ray Jones, of Kingston University, warns that child protection is too important to be left to the “fickleness and failings” of the market.
They say: “England has one of the most successful child protection systems in the world. This is based on strong accountability, stability, continuity, good local partnership working across professionals and agencies, and with experienced and committed professionals and leadership. The intention that private sector organisations such as G4S, Serco, Atos and others should be able to run child protection services causes considerable concern.”
The critics say the track record of big outsourcing companies such as G4S, which was fined for overcharging on a contract to tag offenders, and Serco, which manipulated results to meet targets on outsourced NHS family doctor services, shows the dangers of introducing the profit element into vital public services.
Kathy Evans, chief executive of Children England, which represents more than 100 children’s charities, said although there was a need to explore new ways of improving child safeguarding services, profit-making firms were not the answer:
“Michael Gove must ensure that no commercial company and its shareholders should ever be able to make profit from public spending on child protection. Such an important public function must never be open to the real, or even perceived, risk of being done in the pursuit of profit.”
Only adoption services – a personal priority for Gove, who was himself adopted – remain exempt from the proposals to introduce market forces into children’s services. By law, councils can only delegate adoption services to non-profit-making registered adoption charities.
The consultation document suggests that private providers may not be required to register with Ofsted, although it is understood that all aspects of children’s services in an area will be Ofsted-inspected no matter who delivers them. Local authorities will retain political accountability for the safety of children in their area.
Britain’s biggest child protection charity, the NSPCC, said it was agnostic about who provided safeguarding services, saying the question was about “how good a service is at turning children’s lives around”. But Lisa Harker, its director of strategy, said it was “still looking at the detail to see if there are sufficient checks and balances around service quality”.
At present, new child protection providers can only be drafted in at the direction of the secretary of state in the context of a major safeguarding failure, such as seen in Doncaster and Birmingham in recent years. This, the DfE argues, is illogical and prevents local authorities from adopting innovative new approaches.
But Munro, one of the most respected voices in the child protection world, said there were already many examples of local authority services delivering innovative improvements to services. There was a danger that outsourcing to companies with no experience in delivering child protection would undermine existing local partnership arrangements.
She said: “A private sector company with an eye on the money will not pull its weight in the ‘working together between agencies’ aspect. That rests on goodwill.”
Tony Hawkshead, chief executive of Action for Children, the UK’s biggest charity provider of children’s services, welcomed the opportunity for outside providers to have the opportunity to address “high levels of failure” in current safeguarding provision. He said: “In this very difficult and intractable area charities are very best placed to to be frontline providers for local authorities.”
The Local Government Association gave the plan a lukewarm reception. Nick Forbes, vice-chair of the LGA children and young people’s board, said: “It’s clear that in every case of service failure it has been councils with their committed professionals and democratic accountability that have turned the situation around and as yet we are not seeing other organisations stepping forward with the ability to do the tough job of child protection.”
The DfE said it was responding to demand from councils and there was no requirement for any council to outsource to a private company. “There will be no obligation for councils to take up these freedoms and any that do will still be held accountable by Ofsted. We will take into