How the latest children's social care review could pave the way for further privatisation
Ray Jones, author of “In Whose Interest? The Privatisation of Child Protection and Social Work”, argues that the latest review of children’s social care in England has “every danger” of being another step towards further privatisation.
The government has launched its promised review, which should have been widely welcomed, of children’s social care, but it is already provoking comment, consternation and concern. So what’s not to like about a review of a system which in many areas is being overwhelmed and where services are struggling under significant pressure despite tremendous commitment from practitioners and managers?
First, some context. Children’s social care in England has its primary legislative base in the 1989 Children Act. This is an Act which had its gestation during the 1980s. It was informed by a review by the Law Commission, a programme of well-conducted research commissioned by the Department of Health (which at the time had the lead departmental responsibility for children), and with considerable input and shaping by those with considerable relevant experience.
The Act was shepherded through Parliament by a wise civil servant, Rupert Hughes, who stayed the course throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and by a minister, David Mellor, who ushered the legislation through Parliament under the political radar against the current of anti-public service rhetoric of the Thatcher government.
The Act was implemented by a secretary of state, Virginia Bottomley, who had been a social worker. Brenda Hoggett, who was a lawyer who had written books for social workers on social work legislation, was heavily immersed in setting the principles which underlie the Act. As Brenda Hale she later was the president of the Supreme Court.
What wise and much respected parentage for an Act which has been widely acclaimed for balancing the rights of children, the responsibilities and rights of parents, and the role of the state. In essence, the role of the state through local authorities was to promote the welfare of ‘children in need’ within their families and only to take action to protect children when there was risk of serious significant harm.
When Labour came into office in the late 1990s, and through the 2000s, it sought to invest in help for children and families, most notable through Sure Start. It had some success in constraining the numbers of children and young people being ‘looked after’ by local authorities and removed from their families through compulsory court orders. But there was still the overarching concern about child protection which was fuelled by sporadic media coverage of children who were killed, such as Victoria Climbie and Peter Connelly, despite the cross-national evidence that fewer child died in the UK because of abuse and neglect than elsewhere.
But what has happened since 2010 under Conservative-led governments has been an overwhelming focus on risk assessments and risk management, whilst at the same time politically-chosen austerity has been targeted at poor families by cutting welfare benefits and by decimating the funding for public services. Risk and rationing now trump the 1989 Act’s focus on assisting children and families and helping children in need.
There is, though, another current which is flooding over children’s social care. In 2013 I wrote a piece in The Guardian which was captioned ‘How to privatise child protection in six easy stages’. Step one was to rubbish social workers. Step two was to place other agencies at the margins when there was scrutiny after a child died. Step three was to claim social workers were politically-correct and naïve. Step four was then to introduce a foreshortened fast-track programme distant from universities for social workers working with children and families, favouring a small cohort of privileged students who would be promised quick promotion into leadership roles, and with inputs from management consultants and funding from hedge funds. Fifth, cut funding to local authorities so that children’s social services were over-loaded and overwhelmed. Sixth, have an inspectorate which heightened its requirements of services and was more denigrating.
The Guardian piece was frighteningly prescient. All the steps above have not only been taken but have become giant strides on the road to opening up children’s social care to a commercial privatised for-profit market place. Seventy-six per cent of children’s homes and forty per cent of foster placements in England are now provided by profit-taking private companies, and almost a fifth of social workers within local authority children’s social services are employed through private employment agencies.
So why the concern about the review of children’s social care now launched by the government? First, the Conservative governments of Cameron, May and Johnson have promoted and pushed privatisation despite its high costs and its failures. Just look at how those within Conservative networks have benefitted financially from the government’s awful handling of the pandemic crisis, such as the Baroness Harding’s Serco-led mislabelled NHS track and trace.
Secondly, those advising government on children’s social care, including the chief social worker in the Department for Education, have been allies of privatisation whilst undermining and critical of social workers. The chief social worker for children, for example, has stated that social workers still had to earn public credibility and that social workers’ regulation should be politically controlled.
Third, the government has appointed someone to lead the review who is well immersed in government-favoured networks, has already been placed by the government in positions of influence within children’s social care, and whose networks extend into international firms of management consultants and hedge funds who have championed the privatisation of public services.
The concern about the children’s social care review is that it is not independent and that it has every danger and promise of being another vehicle to motor along on the route already planned and being progressed by the government. And beware of being dazzled by the headlights of government protestations about wanting a better future for children when it is explicitly creating greater and more severe poverty and deprivation for children – hunger and homelessness being just two symbols of what the government is achieving.
Yes – it would be timely to be reviewing the current state of children’s social care, but it would be sensible and necessary to recognise the politically-determined damage done over the last ten years.
What is required is a review which is independent of government. At the least it should be commissioned and shaped as a cross-party review. Those conducting the review should not be only determined and within the gift of the government but chosen because of their widely-recognised personal and professional experience and expertise. It is not too late to regain the ground the government has already lost in announcing what it itself describes as a once-in-lifetime review.
Ray Jones has more than 40 years’ experience as a social worker and was a director of social services for 14 years. He is the author of six books, including the best-selling ‘The Story of Baby P: Setting the Record Straight’ (Policy Press 2014). In 2017 he received the Social Worker of the Year Award for Outstanding Contribution to Social Work. He is now emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London.
Picture credit: U.S. Embassy London
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