Government U-turn over privatising child protection services

Outcry by social work experts leads ministers to say no to private companies but to consider charities and social enterprises

Patrick Butler, social policy editor
The Guardian, Friday 20 June 2014 18.45 BST

Edward Timpson, children’s minister, said the aim was to offer local authorities ‘freedom to deliver services differently in order to achieve better outcomes’. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
Proposals to allow local authorities in England to privatise child protection services have been abandoned.

The Department for Education said on Friday that profit-making organisations would be barred from carrying out core child safeguarding duties, although councils would still be able to bring in charities and not-for-profit firms if they wished.

The decision follows criticism from experts – including social work academics, professionals and charities – that opening up child protection to the market would distort decision-making and dilute local accountability over sensitive matters such as taking a child into care.

The department revealed that of 1,300 responses to its consultation, held in April and May, just 2% agreed with the proposals. Over half said they objected to the introduction of the profit motive. A further 72,000 people signed online petitions objecting to the plans.

Ministers had argued that allowing the outsourcing of child protection would enable more innovative approaches and improve services for youngsters at risk, but the strength of opposition forced them into a swift climbdown.

In its response to the consultation, the department said: “The majority of responses raised concerns with the proposals. By far the most common reason given for this was an objection to the possibility of privatisation or profit-making in children’s services.

“The government recognises the scale of concern in relation to the potential inclusion of a profit-making motive in the proposed range of additional delegable functions – in particular child protection.”

The response added: “The government is happy to respond directly to the primary concern raised in the consultation and is making an amendment to the draft regulations which would prevent profit-making bodies from carrying out the additional delegable functions on behalf of local authorities.”

Kathy Evans, chief executive of Children England, which represents more than 100 children’s charities, welcomed the climbdown: “We welcome the fact that government has recognised the breadth and strength of feeling about the risks of allowing profit-making in child protection. What the huge support for our campaign confirmed is the widespread agreement that children’s best interests, rather than cuts of profits, must be the driving force in daily practice with children.”

Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, who organised a letter condemning the move signed by 37 leading social work academics, also applauded the U-turn. “Local authorities can still contract out these responsibilities to not-for-profit organisations, but there is no route in here for the likes of G4S, Serco, Virgin Healthcare and Atos.”

The DfE said draft regulations laid before parliament next week would still enable them to encourage innovation by delegating children’s social care functions to mutuals, social enterprises and charities. They would allow social workers to establish specialist not-for-profit practices that focused on specialist areas such as female genital mutilation. If the Commons and Lords approve the regulations, they will could come into effect in the autumn.

The DfE emphasised that the sole intention of the consultation was to improve safeguarding services: “The proposals were concerned with improving the quality of children’s services rather than savings, ‘privatisation’ or profit-making.”

The children’s minister, Edward Timpson, said: “We want to offer local authorities the freedom to deliver services differently in order to achieve better outcomes for vulnerable children – to make the adequate good and the good outstanding. If we are going to achieve the very best for our most vulnerable children, we must harness the expertise, passion and drive of all those who want to serve children’s needs.”

Many respondents to the consultation argued that there was little evidence that outsourcing would improve services, that there was a lack of child protection expertise in the private sector, and that there was huge potential for conflicts of interest. The government rejected these arguments.

Currently, only local authority child protection departments taken into special measures as a result of a child protection failure can delegate core functions to outside providers, a move that the secretary of state has to approve.

Although ministers have argued that there was a demand from local authorities to clarify the regulations to enable them to outsource child protection voluntarily, only two – Kingston, in south-west London, and Staffordshire – have sought to go down this route.

The charity Action for Children, which supported the proposals, said it welcomed the announcement. Kate Mulley, director of public policy, said: “The freedom to outsource children’s services will allow local authorities to innovate and improve support provided to families.”