Care Review contract raises concerns over its independence and ‘cost control’ measures

Review Chair defends his position as an unredacted version of his contract with the Department for Education draws criticism over independence from Government and suggestions that no extra funding will be made available for recommendations.

19/03/21

Care Review contract raises concerns over its independence and ‘cost control’ measures

The Chair of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has defended the Review’s integrity after sector leaders expressed concern after publication of the contract showed there will be no extra funding for any recommendations.

The £140,000 contract states there will be involvement of Government officials to “support the modelling of any direct and indirect costs of potential recommendations to local authorities,” as well as a clause stipulating the Chair “shall not embarrass the Department”.

A redacted version of the document appeared on the Government’s ‘Contract Finder’ portal earlier this month, without details about the scope of the review.

However, public-sector procurement data website Bidstats has since published a version with previously omitted details about the scope of the review, including controversial clauses regarding Government influence and “cost control”.

The unredacted contract states that “recommendations must be affordable to [Her Majesty’s Government]” and that “[the Department for Education] DfE cannot assume any additional funding from the Exchequer to meet the recommendations.”

For areas of the Review’s scope already supported by DfE spend, the contract states “potential solutions should include looking at how that money is spent, and the potential for reform.”

Any recommendations that require new funding must demonstrate “how, and over what time period, this would be offset by savings”.

Also stated is that officials from the Government department for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) “must be involved throughout the Review to support the modelling of any direct and indirect costs of potential recommendations to [local authorities].”

Before any recommendations can be implemented, the DfE says it will need to agree them and their “funding mechanism” with the Treasury and MHCLG, with a reminder of the previously mentioned “cost-saving” measures.

Carolyne Willow, Director of children’s rights charity Article 39, said it was “inconceivable” that the Review’s proposals would not require public funds.

“Hopes have been raised all over the country that this review will bring about huge changes in children’s social care, with the views and experiences of children and families centre-stage.

“It is inconceivable that ideas and proposals would not require public funds, just as any once-in-a-generation review of the NHS or education would inevitably point towards additional resources.

“Many of us have suspected from the start that the government already knows what it wants to happen from this review, and this contract confirms our worst fears. It’s time for the government to come clean about what it’s planning for children’s social care, and to admit this review is independent in name only.”

Taking to Twitter to defend the Review’s processes, former Chief Executive of Frontline and now Chair of the Review Josh MacAlister said that full contracts don’t normally get published, but the fact that it has is “good for transparency”.

“The review recommendations could have implications for MHCLG, DfE, DHSC, MoJ, HO etc. It’s positive that these departments, alongside No10 & Cabinet Office, are engaged,” MacAlister said, adding: “it's a sign that the gov wants this to be a review they can action not one that gathers dust on a shelf.”

MacAlister refuted that the contract showed his Review cannot secure extra funding, saying it “acknowledges that I can recommend new funding and that I’d need to make a case for it.”

The clause which MacAlister appears to be referring to, however, refers back to the need for any recommendations to ultimately save costs for the Government.

“The biggest cost of children's social care failing is the human cost paid by children and families. Beyond the £10bn+ spent within the children’s social care system there are £bns more spent as a result of poor outcomes,” MacAlister said.

“The review therefore needs to show the whole cost to the country when we fail children and young people and show how money can be better spent getting things right for children and families.”

A further clause states that the supporting panel must contain skill sets, including “financial background and experience in cost control”, as well as representatives from the What Works Centre and Social Finance.

MacAlister expressed confusion over the mention of this ‘supporting panel’, saying he “insisted on this being changed” to a different structure, including the addition of the Experts by Experience panel.

Critics were quick to point out, however, that the contract – with the mention of the ‘supporting panel’ – was signed on 24 February 2021, more than a month after the online launch of the Review.

The What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care was commissioned by the Department for Education (announced in 2016) and registered as a company in 2019 and is one of a number of ‘What Works Centres’ funded by central government and non-government sources.

The scope of the review was also seen to be much wider than the published terms of reference stating, “the review will consider the contribution and impact of the family court and legal process on the experiences and outcomes of the child,” however, there is no mention of the family court and the legal process in the document published on the review’s website.

Ray Jones, Emeritus Professor of Social Work at Kingston University and author of ‘In Whose Interest? The Privatisation of Child Protection and Social Work’, said: “How awful that the contract which has been signed states that there must be nothing in the review which embarrasses the Department for Education. So much for independence but also, as the DfE sought to hide this information, for integrity.”

“How awful that the contract signed for this review makes explicit there should be no seeking of additional longer term government funding for children’s care and with the Treasury to watch over the review.

“It bakes in the cuts of the past 10 years.”

Responding to the concerns over the wording in the document that he “shall not embarrass the Department or bring it into disrepute,” MacAlister said this was “template text for individuals in this position to make sure our conduct is of the highest standard.”

“I think that’s a good thing. It’s not designed to and will not limit me in making recommendations without fear or favour.”

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