Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families First Report

2  Social work services

5. The Bill will allow local authorities to contract out responsibility for all or part of services for young people to "a provider of social work services", which will be a body corporate, but which cannot be a local authority.[6] On this proposal, NCH told the Committee:

    "It is important to recognise that the proposal for independent Social Care Practices (SCP) stems from a desire to tackle many of the perceived weaknesses that the current social work system has when it comes to placing the needs of the child at the centre of all that it does […]. While there may be potential benefits of SCPs, we need to acknowledge that change does not always bring better outcomes. We share many of the same concerns as the LGA regarding the development of SCPs. For example, SCPs will restrict a local authority's flexibility in allocating resources and introduces yet another layer of bureaucracy to the system. Furthermore, there is no evidence that SCPs will resolve the issues of recruiting and retaining social workers, or why this model is better than empowering foster carers or key workers in children's homes who are already much closer to the children and young people." [7]

The London Borough of Sutton expressed views on similar lines.[8]

6. The Minister told us that the provisions in the Bill were designed to allow arrangements to be piloted over the next five years, aiming to see if providers of social work services would introduce smaller flexible teams akin to GP practices bringing greater continuity of personnel in providing services to children:[9]

    "[…] we thought that it was right to allow in the pilot provision by private sector providers to see if that gave any new energy to the pilot scheme. There is £6 million over the next five years. The pilots will run for two years and then will continue to run while they are evaluated. The evaluation will look very much into the question of whether they have provided a better service and whether they are a sustainable model that could be more generally extended to other local authorities."[10]

7. The Minister also mentioned that there were other pilots operating that did not need legislation:

    "These involve local authorities looking at new ways of working and remodelling social work teams within the structure that is there at present. We are hoping to have a clearer picture in a few years' time that may well mean that in 10 years we will have a much more diverse set of models of how social workers work with children and young people."[11]

8. We asked him about whether small social care providers would have the capacity to work in an appropriately integrated way with criminal justice, health, social care and education services. He told us:

    "I recognise the point, which has been made during the development of these proposals. That is the very reason for running a pilot in six local authorities […] our hope is that if the pilots work, it will be overcome by a reduction in the complexity of the social care work force, by working within a small team with a bit more flexibility and independence, by the ability to do different, out-of-hours work, and by sharing practice among a small team. That may well overcome the problem, and that is why we are piloting the scheme."[12]

9. A concern that was put to us in evidence was that the service from some private care providers might be less reliable for the long term than other provision. The Adolescent and Children's Trust (TACT) told us:

    "While TACT supports the general principle of commissioning social work practices, we have specific concerns over the role of Private Equity firms' involvement in this sector. Unlike charities, social enterprises and companies limited under certain guarantees, private equity firms have a single overriding objective to maximise financial returns for their backers. As an ethos, we find this to be incongruous in the child social care sector, yet private equity firms have the resources to operate and grow in a market far more rapidly than their competitors. Last year saw the collapse of the private equity run children's residential and educational provider, Sedgemoor, a situation that could be easily replicated in commissioned social work practices to the great detriment of the children and young people dependent on their care and professional diligence."[13]

10. We asked the Minister whether the Bill provided safeguards against a private provider withdrawing provision at very short notice. He told us:

    "[…] we are strengthening the inspection regime to make sure that there is a transition in relation to pulling the plug on a home in that way. Within the Bill itself, there is no particular clause in relation to that, but what we are broadly doing is strengthening the level of inspection for care homes that are either in the private sector or council care homes."[14]

11. When challenged on whether it was the role of the inspection regime to guard against these problems, the Minister said that:

    "Children's homes are regulated by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector. They are supposed to provide a written application for cancellation of their registration to the inspectorate, and they should give at least three months' notice of the proposed date of closure. Obviously, that is a matter that we have to look at very closely now with Ofsted to see whether we can learn lessons to ensure that people are not left high and dry in the way they were in [the Sedgemoor] case. That work is in progress."[15]

12. We welcome the provision in the Bill on piloting social work practices. Care needs to be taken, however, to ensure that the pilots provide sufficient information to enable the Department to judge whether this is an initiative that could be introduced more widely. Our main concern is that continuity and stability of service should be maintained regardless of who is the provider. The architect of the proposal, Professor Julian Le Grand of the LSE, acknowledges that it is breaking new ground:

    "A lot of people object, some people approve, although there's actually very little evidence either way […]. But we felt there was enough theory and practice to suggest this was an experiment worth trying."[16]

The pilots need to fill the evidence gap on social work practices. It is vital that they are properly evaluated and that they are not rolled out unless there is clear evidence that they will provide the essential continuity and stability for looked-after children.

13. On a related issue, we do not see inspection as the answer to concerns about services being withdrawn at short notice by a private provider, as in the case of the Sedgemoor children's homes. We note the Minister's point about Ofsted being the registration authority for homes, but in that case and with the proposed social work practices, it seems to us that contract terms or some other form of regulation would be more appropriate ways of controlling these problems. Throughout our evidence, continuity and stability for looked-after children are emphasised as key, and therefore some sort of safety net is needed.

6   Clauses 1 to 6. Back

7   Ev 59 Back

8   Ev 50 Back

9   Q 11 Back

10   ibid  Back

11   ibid Back

12   Q 13 Back

13   Ev 19, para 5 Back

14   Q 9 Back

15   Q 10 Back

16   Children & Young People Now, 5-11 March 2008,p 15, The grand agitator. Back

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