Hedge funds have no place in children’s services

17 September 2015
Source: The Guardian

Only in Britain do we delegate to the market crucial decisions about the welfare and safety of our most vulnerable children

monopoly board

The direction of travel is clear: children’s services are to become a money maker. Photograph: Huw Jones/Alamy

Sometimes in life there’s deja vu, the feeling that we have been here before. And then there are coincidences that it is hard to believe have really occurred by chance. This was my experience recently.

I was working with a local safeguarding children board and its partners which were seeking to drive forward child protection improvement, in the context of big funding cuts for all the public sector bodies around the table. In the midst of this positive activity, I spotted a news alert that David Cameron was making a speech in which he would be sharing his thinking about how a further £20bn public expenditure cuts were to be made. One of his priorities for change would be child protection and children’s services, bringing in new providers because “what energises new markets are new insurgent companies who break monopolies and bring in new ways of doing things”.

It felt as though I had been there before. There should be little surprise that this political script of marketisation and privatisation should now be targeted at child protection. No other country in the world delegates to the market crucial decisions about the welfare and safety of children, such as initiating court proceedings to have children removed from their families and deciding where they should live. But with the health service, schools, probation, prisons, and welfare benefits assessments open to the market, the direction of travel has been clear for some time.

In his speech, Cameron said that “non profit trusts” (but he also mentioned non-specified “other partnerships”) would be able to take on crucial children’s social services responsibilities from “any local authority failing its children”. This is not what his government pushed through in a recent regulatory change. There, it is explicit that private profit-driven companies can get contracts for these responsibilities as long as they set up non-profit subsidiaries. As with academy schools, we know how the parent company then makes it profit – it charges its subsidiary whatever it wants for management, facilities and support services. It is a money maker.

And now for the strange coincidence. Two hours later, I received an email from a consultancy firm selling itself as giving “investors a better way to access industry knowledge … helping thousands of clients get answers to their most critical questions, without leaving their desks. Rather than spending hours reading research reports, or travelling to meet people at conferences, we can connect clients directly with industry experts to hear immediate, relevant insights”.

Who are these clients who want “industry insights”. They are, according to the email I received, “the world’s finest hedge funds, asset management and private equity firms”. And what did they want from me? I was told they came across my name “while doing some research online on social work in the UK, and wanted to see if you would be interested in a paid phone consultation with my American client”.

Now, I assume hedge funds and private equity firms pay well. Just look at the multi-million pound payments received by their directors, who generate big profits from the “industries” they cherry pick. It was a little tempting to take up their offer to be paid to advise their private investor clients. But I replied saying that I had no interest in having the conversation. Still, I suspect these companies will continue to circle child protection and children’s social services and social work. And there may be others willing to advise about how and where to strike to “energise” the market being created in children’s social services.

Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London. A former director of social services, his most recent book,The Story of Baby P: Setting the Record Straight, was published by Policy Press in 2014.