By Robin Sen and Christian Kerr (Social Worker)
The recent removal of procedural safeguards for children in care in England without consultation, via Statutory Instrument 445 (‘SI445’), has reignited concerns about the de-regulation of children’s services in England (Sen, 2020). Linked to questions of de-regulation has been growing consternation about increasing private sector involvement in children’s services provision. This growing involvement is a matter of importance not only for ‘social work’ per se, but for our wider democratic governance and accountability. We suggest there are, at least, three interlinked issues regarding developments in this area which need scrutinising.
The first is that during the last decade a number of investment funds have taken ownership of companies which provide a good proportion of the fostering and residential child care placements in England and this is a trend Robin started to explore in recent work (Sen, 2019). In turn this raises questions about whether the care of some of the most ‘vulnerable’ children, to whom the state has enhanced responsibilities, should be a site for profit. Even some who may accept that small, profit making, independent providers have a role to play within a ‘mixed economy of care’ have doubts about whether investment funds, seeking attractive returns, should be responsible for providing children’s services. Ethically and legislatively, the primary purpose of any out-of-home care placement should be to meet the needs of children within it. If the care of children is not compromised from the outset by profit seeking then there is evidence to suggest that it may over time (see Sen 2018, for example).
A second linked issue is one closer to social work’s own internal governance: over the last decade we have seen governments outsourcing children’s services work to private companies, under the aegis of developing social work practice. Some of these companies have had close links to key players who have influenced Government policy around children’s services. These key players have also been associated with an agenda of greater de-regulation – as noted, most recently this has been evidenced by the reduction of procedural safeguards for children in care introduced during the Covid 19 crisis (Sen, 2020). The outsourced contracts include multi-million pound awards given to the private consultancies Morning Lane and Munro, Turnell & Murphy to develop their particular models of social work practice, and lucrative contracts given to Morning Lane (again), KPMG and Deloitte, to develop a National Accreditation & Assessment System for child and family social workers. The contracts were given to KPMG and Deloitte despite the LuxLeaks, which revealed the ‘big four’ accountancy firms were involved in aggressive ‘tax optimisation’ schemes, on behalf of large multinational clients.
The final concern is the rise of fast-track education and training courses in England. We focus here on Frontline which is a social work fast track course for children and families social workers. During Frontline’s gestation, US strategy consulting firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG) volunteered to provide support. BCG’s pro bono support to Frontline has increased in monetary value year on year — £200k worth in 2015–16, £230k worth in 2016–2017, and £235k in 2017-2018. Frontline has a plethora of other corporate partners, including Credit Suisse and KPMG (again), from which it receives cash donations through what is known as ‘corporate social responsibility’ – tax-sheltered, donor-directed social change schemes. In the UK children’s services sector partnerships with the private sector, such as those between Frontline and its corporate sponsors, have been characterised by their advocates as dynamic and ‘innovative’. This idea is usually contrasted with the image of a sclerotic public sector, whether that be local authority delivered services, or publicly funded university provision. Le Grand (2003) argues that state provision can be characterised by self-serving bureaucratic interests, which meet their own needs more than those of the public they are meant to serve, due to the absence of market mechanisms to render them responsive. However, if it is reasonable to question if public sector provision is as genuinely other-regarding as some of its advocates might suggest – and we accept it is – then it is also worth considering what may underlie such seemingly altruistic activity on the part of profit-maximising, business-hardened, multinationals.
We would suggest that if the involvement of large corporate firms within children’s services provision is as positive as the fact of these recent arrangements might suggest, then greater transparency should not be problematic for either those firms, or those working closely with them. The award of multi-million contracts to private companies could, for example, be justified on the basis that they resulted in improved social work practice, and ultimately better experiences for children and families. It is often said that national policy makers want hard evidence of ‘what works’ in children’s services, but as our research has highlighted, there is astonishingly little evidence that these multi-million pound transfers to private firms, in an era of austerity, have made an enduring positive difference to children and families’ lives (Sen, 2019). We need to continue to ask these questions not only for the future of children’s services, but in the interest of sound democratic governance, accountability and transparency.
- Le Grand, J. (2003). Motivation, Agency, and Public Policy: Of Knights and Knaves, Pawns and Queens. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Sen, R. (2018) Effective Practice with Looked after Children, London: Palgrave.
- Sen, R. (2019) ‘Is there a ‘confluence of interests’ in social work?’ Professional Social Work, November 2019: Available at: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.871847!/file/PSW-robinsen-nov19.pdf
- Sen, R. (2020) ‘Entitled to special protection and assistance?’ SW2020 under Covid 19 Magazine, 3rd Edition, https://sw2020covid19.group.shef.ac.uk/2020/05/18/entitled-to-special-protection-and-assistance/
Featured Image: Offices by Lei Jiang, public domain via Unsplash.