JimKenIn his guest blog this week CareKnowledge editor Jim Kennedy looks at the ADCS response to the government proposal which would see independent providers delivering children's social care functions.

Government is pressing ahead with its plans to enable English local authorities to delegate the vast bulk of their children’s social care functions to independent providers. (You can read more about the plans here). A number of academics and a range of organisations, including BASW, the College of Social Work and Unison have already voiced concern about these plans. Now, in a detailed response to consultation on the necessary regulations, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) has made clear its serious reservations about the proposals.

As a result of earlier action by the government – again, through the Children and Young Person’s Act 2008 – local authorities can already delegate their looked after children and care leaver functions to a third party provider of social work services. 

The newly proposed regulations will enable local authorities to delegate most of the rest of their children’s social care functions, including those relating to child protection, to a range of other providers. The only functions they will not be able to delegate relate to adoption (where only registered adoption agencies can be used); and to Independent Reviewing Officers. 

ADCS’s response to the draft regulations raises a number of fundamental objections to the appropriateness of delegation in this case, but it also points to a number of areas where regulations and guidance will need to be carefully tuned to ensure safe delivery of services should the new arrangements be implemented. 

On that point, ADCS says that, these changes are so fundamental and raise such serious policy and practice issues that, before final introduction of the new powers, time should be given for further consultations on the exact form and content of the regulatory material. 

It will clearly be getting quite close to the next election, before the new powers can be introduced, even if no additional time for consultation is granted, so the government may be reluctant to commit to such an extension. Although, since the Act on which the current moves are based is, if memory serves, a creature of the last administration, worries about future commitment to the changes, may be less than will be the case in a number of other more contentious policy areas.  

Other core points made by ADCS centre on concerns that the services, now considered for delegation, lie so much at the heart of local authority accountability that there are real dangers in disrupting that accountability; and that the provision of such essential services “should not be predicated on a profit motive”.

ADCS add that “There is a serious risk of perverse financial incentives (direct or indirect) that could potentially distort decisions in individual care cases, for example, to intervene or not, to take a child into care or not.”

ADCS also say that should the new powers be implemented, there should be a “requirement that providers of outsourced child protection services be not-for-profit organisations, as is the case currently with respect to adoption services.” And that the regulations should ensure that delegation could be to another local authority. 

Further key points made by ADCS relate to the complexities of the inspection arrangements, where they note that Ofsted would inspect providers but local authorities would be accountable for ensuring improvements. On this, ADCS say “The very serious potential for these proposals to distort the position of a single local point of accountability for children and young people is best exemplified by the idea that a provider would be inspected by Ofsted, and then the local authority ‘awarded’ the judgment.” 

Finally, for this blog at least, ADCS draw attention to what has happened in the children’s homes market where outsourcing has been vigorously pursued over many years, and where they say that “there is little evidence that the introduction of market forces will improve outcomes for vulnerable children, young people and their families.” 

The result, ADCS points out, is “that currently 75% of children’s homes are run by independent providers; provision of residential placements is distributed in a geographically uneven way with concentrations of provision in parts of the country where property is, or has historically been, cheaper. This clustering of residential provision has resulted in an increasingly large number of children and young people being placed at significant distance from their home area.”

ADCS undoubtedly raise some weighty concerns about the proposed new arrangements. But, for the moment, I’m going to put myself in the position of a Ministerial Advisor, and imagine what they might say, in response.

Firstly, I think they will say these are only powers to delegate. We don’t need to show our hand yet, on whether we will incentivise or even force local authorities to take them up.

Secondly, I think they will say that some of the concerns expressed arguably relate just as much to looked after children services, already open for delegation – and the roof hasn’t yet fallen in on those.

Thirdly, I think they will say the dangers of complex accountability are overstated. After all, ADCS themselves recognise that a very mixed economy of care already exists in relation to children’s services, and regulatory arrangements seem capable of coping with the accountability issues.

Fourthly, I think they will say that it is decisions made by Directors of Social Services themselves which have created the distortions in the children’s homes market; and that those – and other child care decisions – have been partly, and necessarily, driven by economic pressures, so the new market worries are down to local authorities to manage better; and that suggesting that the ‘profit motive’ will introduce financial considerations, for the first time, to care decisions, is misleading.

I’ll take the advisor’s hat off now, because the plain truth is that the arguments made are made because there is a pre-existing dogma that, only by freeing services from direct local authority control, can innovation and greater efficiency be delivered. So, even if ADCS are right about some of the dangers of the new moves the advisor will want to discount them. And some of the principles on which the ADCS response is based have no place in the prevailing dogma.

And that’s what makes these arguments so wearisome. Local authorities are called authorities for a reason. They are the other wing of political power, in the UK. Successive governments have been distrustful of their abilities to deliver change and innovation successfully – arguably, one bureaucracy looking askance at another.  There has also often been the added twist that some politicians believe the private sector will always deliver services more efficiently.

If local authorities believed these new powers were necessary, it should be them who are clamouring for the change, rather than Government imposing it. Some local authorities may think the new powers are beneficial, but I see little sign that there is huge demand from them for this further power to delegate. And, since, as I’ve suggested, both sides of the argument are driven by belief, why is central government’s belief that this is necessary, the better belief?

I know central government will say (as above) that these are only powers, but who is to say what mechanisms will be used in the future to force the pace on their use? And if that doesn’t happen, the tone will be set for future local authority thinking on these issues, even if the direction of travel isn’t one they created themselves.

That brings me to my final point. One of the issues given less prominence in the ADCS response is the evidence they refer to which challenges the notion complicating further powers are needed to secure innovation. Here they directly challenge the dogma that change and improvement cannot be delivered in the existing structures – and within, and across, local authorities themselves.  

ADCS emphasise how much innovation, including market development, has already been achieved in children’s social services, and make the not often heard point that “the vast majority of improvement capacity – in the form of sufficiently skilled social workers, exists in the local government sector; the challenge is, how best to release that capacity safely and sustainably.”