Risk mismanagement

MikeWatson.jpgMike Watson on keeping the profit motive out of children’s social services

Today the Children and Social Work Bill has its latest day of Committee in the House of Lords, where it will feature the most contentious issue to have been discussed so far: allowing councils to opt out of providing some children’s social services. Many fear this could prove to be a Trojan horse, paving the way for the wholesale privatisation of these and other services. You don’t need to have read Virgil’s Aeneid to appreciate the existential threat.

The Bill euphemistically refers to ‘different ways of working’, code for exempting councils from requirements hitherto imposed by children’s social care legislation. Labour holds strongly to the view that child protection and wider social care should not be run for profit. That’s why we have joined with other peers from across the House to table an amendment advocating that position unequivocally.

So today, we will press the government to demonstrate just what problem this proposal is designed to address. At Second Reading, the Minister referred to the need for ‘innovation’ – something we are of course, not opposed to. Labour recognises that the children’s social care landscape has changed significantly since the last major legislative reform, brought about by the 2004 Children Act. We support innovation if it improves outcomes for children and standards in local authorities, as Leeds City Council has recently demonstrated. But what is on the table with Bill is something entirely different.

The onus would fall on councils to request that the Education Secretary issues an exemption from statutory duties. It’s not difficult to imagine some local authorities viewing that as an opportunity to drop certain kinds of provision at a time when increasing financial pressures may make it difficult for them to meet all their statutory commitments. Should this part of the Bill survive, it will be crucial to have assurances regarding councils that delegate their responsibilities for children in care and/or care leavers. The same principles that apply to them must also apply to whoever subsequently delivers those services.

Underlining our concerns, Labour has also signed up to an amendment for consideration later in the Bill, seeking the establishment of an independent body to oversee the Education Secretary’s decisions to grant such exemptions. Nothing can be more important than the safeguarding and protection of children, especially those at greatest risk and many organisations in the care sector have registered their concerns about the government’s plans. At Second Reading, I asked the minister whether they had made any assessment of the risks. I still await a response.

Equally, it is unclear whether outsourced services would be subject to Ofsted inspections. And if not, then how would it be known whether outcomes for children were improving? As it stands, the Bill’s proposals are too wide ranging and without adequate safeguards to protect young people if plans to outsource go wrong. I hope I’m proven wrong but I fear we will still be pressing this issue come Report stage.

Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minster in the House of Lords

Published 6th July 2016

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