Outsourcing child protection services is not the answer

The competitive process has not delivered value for anyone.

The competitive process has not delivered value for anyone

In May of this year, the government published plans to outsource child protection services to private providers.

Understandably, the Department for Education’s (DoE) idea of placing such hugely sensitive public services in the hands of for-profit companies met with widespread alarm. The government was forced to partly back down following a vigorous campaign by unions and children’s charities and an overwhelming negative response from those responding to their consultation.

The very fact that the government could seriously consider such a course of action is symptomatic of its adherence to a dogmatic free-market view of public services that looks increasingly old hat and out of step with the mood of the public.

Children’s services have always seen a mix of provision between local councils and a variety of community and voluntary organisations. There’s rarely been a single, simple way of providing those services and the landscape has varied across different authorities.

And at its best, the provision of children’s services has seen dynamic and innovative collaboration between the statutory and voluntary sector, built around engaging and empowering children and young people at the heart of those services.

But in recent years, this model has come under increasing attack. Buffeted by the perfect storm of, on the one hand, massive cuts to local authority budgets and, on the other, an intensification of a procurement and contracting regime based on price-based competition.

According to Kathy Evans at Children England, this left a situation where most charities were spending “ever more of their own resources on competing to get even less income to meet greater demand”.

Aside from the moral implications of placing children’s services in the hands of profit-maximising companies, the competitive process has just not delivered value for anyone. The combined costs of managing and administering the market represent an enormous waste of time and resources. There have been cases recently where the costs of running the tendering process accounted for over 20 per cent of the total value of a contract.

The increasing use of highly specified and short term contracts is stifling the flexibility, innovation and risk-taking that the voluntary and community sector is there to provide.

With dwindling resources available, the market has led to a race to the bottom, with ever greater risk transferred to providers, with decreasing resources to do the job, leaving the workforce stretched to the limit, increasing the use of zero hours contracts and cutting pay and conditions.

As with social care, we find some of the most vulnerable members of our society being cared for by the most vulnerable workforce. Quality deteriorates, innovation is stifled and short term savings equate to longer term and more expensive problems down the line.

This is a genuine false economy that benefits no one; not the taxpayer, nor the providers, nor the commissioning authorities and, of course, not the children and young people on the receiving end.

This is why the TUC and Children England go together to propose a new settlement for children’s services. The Declaration of Interdependence promotes a new model based on collaboration, exploring alternative and better value forms of funding that replace price-based competition with innovative partnerships, maximising full value out of the precious resources at our disposal.

And a model that understands that the interests and rights of the child are enhanced by a secure and properly paid workforce. So, yes, employment standards are integral to this too.

It has been hugely encouraging to see the support we’ve both received from unions like UNISON and Unite through to children’s charities like Barnado’s and Action for Children, demonstrating the breadth of support for our initiative.

The challenge now is to bring local and national government to the table to see how we can work together to bring these changes about. It will require a fundamental culture shift and, frankly, the proper resources to do the job.

Questions remain as to whether the government has the will or vision to move away from a competitive free-market model that looks increasingly defunct.

Matt Dykes is senior policy officer for public services at TUC

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