Outrage at privatising child protection should spark an overhaul of the whole system

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The Department for Education’s proposal that for-profit companies could provide child protection services and other statutory functions for families caused a major public uproar this spring – and the furore is still rumbling.

A front-page article in the Guardian, tens of thousands of signatories to various petitions, a letter signed by 37 academic experts, plus many individual replies to the consultation all led to an apparent u-turn, with the government announcing it was abandoning the idea.

It has since transpired that the u-turn is not quite as it appears: the revised regulations will not prevent an otherwise profit-making company from setting up a separate not-for-profit subsidiary to take on these sorts of contracts.

This back-door route will allow companies to profit from social care contracts by channelling funds back to parent firms. Many profit-making companies are already involved in running children’s homes, and under the new proposals, those same companies could be involved in making crucial decisions on whether or not children are taken into care.

Delayed reaction

On the face of it, it does seem rather strange that for decades, we have been content to let for-profit companies run children’s homes, accommodating the most vulnerable and traumatised children who have often been through multiple moves, and that we have only become seriously concerned now that the same companies are getting involved in the work of care assessment.

This delayed outrage might simply reflect the low status we assign to the residential care system and those who “end up” in it. Or perhaps it is outrage at the obvious conflict of interest issue – the idea of for-profit companies deciding whether children should be removed or left at home, with financial incentives attached to the consequences, may just be the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as public opinion is concerned.

However late to the party it is, this outrage is well deserved. We should be especially concerned that while these crucial decisions are outsourced to the private sector, statutory accountability for child protection will stay with the local authority, which will still be inspected by Ofsted and bear all the ensuing pressure – even as the actual providers of the delegated services will not be under scrutiny from anyone but the local authority.

The result of this will be a shift of local government resources into rigorous monitoring and inspection of private providers and loss of capacity in remaining aspects of service delivery.

In our austere climate of seemingly limitless public resource retrenchment, this is madness.

Dark days

The breadth of the opposition to these changes reflects a profound distrust of markets, and a growth in the public’s awareness of successive market failures. But while there’s already widespread concern about the role of the market, especially in relation to the provision of public goods such as child protection, there is also serious cause for concern about the state’s current capacity to deliver humane and effective child protection services.

Our own research and that of others tells us that, in the face of austerity and welfare “reform”, too many families are struggling to get non-stigmatising help for an increasing array of material and psychological troubles.

We know too that many social workers and their managers are battling against systems that are too complex, too bureaucratic, too risk-averse and too crisis-driven. These deep problems have been a long time in the making. They are the legacy of a bewildering cocktail of half-baked policy ideas, particularly toxic in a desperately pressurised climate of deep budget cuts.

Rampant individualism

Controversial as it is, the outsourcing issue is an important catalyst for a desperately needed debate about alternative ways we can run our social work services.

Given the severity of the situation, it is crucial there are voices arguing for bold redesigns, and not just devolution of responsibility. Whatever systems we design and however we govern, we must stay rooted in the ethical idea that our interdependence on each other is of paramount moral value. This interdependence is dismissed by the logic of individualism, which denigrates dependency and reduces all human troubles to risk factors.

It is a logic that promotes conversations between social workers, children and their parents that too often fail to move beyond ascertaining who is to blame, who or what has to change, and in extremis, who needs to leave the family home. Social workers, families and children all need, and deserve, much better.

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