Forget Birmingham’s children, the Le Grand review of Birmingham’s failing children’s social care department is part of a bigger national political game and Birmingham’s failings are Michael Gove’s opportunities.
Gove set out his agenda last November when he stated ‘I believe that we have not been either systematic, radical or determined enough in our efforts to reform the system of children’s social care in this country.’ (1) Going on to question why Children’s social care services needed to be provided by local councils.
All the better that Birmingham is a high profile Labour controlled council, that has been politically hamstrung by it’s failure to prioritise and improve services to vulnerable children in the city while simultaneously cutting them.
The well documented difficulties of social care services in the city over more than a ten year period and failure to adequately safeguard children have allowed the Government to appoint a Review Team whose brief included making proposals for alternative arrangements for delivering these critical services.
The Review has been led by Prof Julian Le Grand, and while nominally independent Le Grand has impeccable neo-liberal credentials as a champion of independent Social Work practices under the last New Labour Government and an exponent of competition and market forces within public provision.
The review report presents a complex range of factors contributing to Birmingham’s failure, a combination of political disinterest, institutional and organisational weaknesses leading to poor management and ultimately to poor social work practice with vulnerable children. How exactly the analysis and causes of failure identified within the body of the report supports its recommendations is an open and important question. In a sense it doesn’t matter as the review and its response was always a political exercise.
The Le Grand review report was published last week, and considers a range of options for the future delivery of social care services. It rules out waiting for local improvements by Central Government due to the long history of ‘last chances’ and ‘false dawns’. Appointing another Council to takeover and run Birmingham’s services is discounted on the grounds that finding another high performing authority of sufficient scale and capacity to takeover Birmingham is unlikely.
The favoured option of the Reviewers is the creation of new arrangements which would retain the role of the Council as the commissioner of social care services who would engage other partners to provide and run those services. The providers could be a new purpose created body or existing private sector or social enterprise organisations. This is favoured as moving to this model would create a clear break from the past and allow for the creation of a new culture and practice.
This model of delivery is faced with two major problems, firstly in Birmingham’s ability to ‘commission well’ and secondly the capacity and ability of other providers to take over the services against the backdrop of the shortage of good quality social workers in the region.
The Review concludes that ‘we need urgently to consider how such capacity can be created or promoted such that the range of options available can be fully explored.’
The Government’s response to the Le Grand Review was to commission ‘a specific study on developing capacity to assist in the intervention options, involving the possible splitting of commissioning from provision.’ The Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson, appointed Julian Le Grand and the other members of the Review team to continue with this second stage piece of work and to report back to him by the end of September.
As an interim measure Edward Timpson appointed a Commissioner, Lord Norman Warner, to oversee the improvement in the quality of social work and the implementation of a DfE action plan in Birmingham with the requirement to report back to the Secretary of State every three months. The Commissioner who admits his knowledge of child protection legislation to be a little rusty will be supported by an expert panel.
The Review recommendations and the Minister’s response can only be understood within a national context and within a series of national changes recently initiated by the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, to move towards the marketisation of social care services, a move which would involve moving statutory responsibilities outside the local authority.
This is an immensely complex task and involves huge political risks. The activity of children’s social care services is bound by statute which gives powers to the state, in the form of social workers and the Family courts that allows them to intervene in families to ensure the welfare and protection of children. This includes for example the removal of children from their birth family and placing them within another family for adoption. Children’s social work is a highly regulated sphere.
The significance of Birmingham is that it is the largest local authority in the country and
if the Government can crack the problem of outsourcing social care services in Birmingham then the rest of the country will fall. Le Grand and Gove’s earlier and similar initiative fell in Doncaster when their proposed children’s trust arrangement failed for legal reasons.
Michael Gove has been a very busy Secretary of State for Education with the launch of the Free schools programme and the massive extension of academy schools during his term of office. His attention has only recently turned to Children’s social care where he is now seeking to transfer some of his arguments and templates taken from his school reform programme, central to this has been the weakening the role of the local authority as a provider and encouraging a diversity of providers within the system.
Using the ‘Teach First’ template, Frontline has recently arrived in social work bringing in a third party provider to train a future generation of ‘child protection’ social workers on the job and weakening the role of Universities as educators of future social workers.
In November 2013 the Government introduced regulation that extended the term of Part 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 which was due to lapse and had originally been enacted to allow the Social Work pilots to be set up under the previous Government. The implication of this regulation is to allow the delegation of responsibility for children’s social care services to an independent provider from the voluntary or private sectors.
UNISON charged that this change “will pave the way for wholesale privatisation of these sensitive and critical social work functions, allowing contracts to be won by commercial contractors which do not operate on a social worker led basis and are driven by shareholder profit maximisation.’’ (2)
What happens in Birmingham in the months and year to come will be of national significance in how children’s social care services are delivered in future.
Birmingham’s failure to protect it’s children is undoubtedly a national disgrace requiring of national action.
But what this failure has created is a massive political opportunity for the Con-Dem Government to create a potential framework for breaking up this most complex part of the welfare state.
In brief – Rebutting Le Grand:
Class inequality and Birmingham’s children
‘The city has an IDACI score of 37.4, meaning that 37.4% of children live in areas of highest poverty. Birmingham also has a far higher number of children in low income households (77,510) than any other local authority.’
The weight of children living in poverty and within low income families in Birmingham is identified as a major demand factor contributing towards the pressures on children’s social care services, but beyond that Le Grand is silent.
In a similar way statistical information is provided about the ethnicity of children in the city and their involvement with the Department, at one point the report notes that ‘data relating to ethnicity was apparently out of kilter with the general population of the city’; the specific impacts of the failure of children’s care services on the lives of BME children is not considered.
We know ‘that deprivation is the largest factor explaining major differences between local authorities in key aspects of child welfare, such as the proportion of children entering the care system (becoming ‘looked after children’ (LAC)) or being subject to a child protection plan (CPP).’(3)
Given the extent of child poverty in Birmingham and the role of class inequality, racism and of multiple deprivation, attacking class inequality and racism has to be part of the solution to improving child welfare and outcomes in the city.
Public spending cuts
The underfunding issue identified within the report is removed from any consideration of the impact of four years of austerity and of the public spending cuts imposed on the council by Central Government through its grant settlement. The under-resourcing of these services has been made into a local issue by Le Grand, and while there is an important local aspect there remains the determining national context.
Critically, there is no recommendation from the Review regarding what level of new resources are required to turn around Children’s social care and how and who will fund them.
We need to demand transparency on past and future funding for children’s social care in Birmingham.
Children’s lives – a political issue
How we value children’s lives and as a society care and nurture young people into adulthood is always and must remain a political question.
Le Grand identifies the problem of the ‘Lack of consistent political interest and concern by some of the previous political leaderships of the Council’ contributing to the underfunding and failure of services.
But Le Grand suggests a seemingly technical and organisational fix which doesn’t answer the political problem he poses, but he has other agenda’s afoot.
In regard to the Government Commissioner to whom key Council officers report and who in turn reports to the Secretary of State, he will have a key role in shaping the implementation plan and influence the allocation of resources. He has no direct democratic mandate and no specified relationship to local elected politicians.
The need to fully resource children’s social care is a matter of politics and political priorities. The struggle for better futures for children who come from poor working class and often BME families and who come into contact with the child welfare system should be a political imperative for us.
This is the battleground and local democracy cannot be surrendered to a national Government which has driven many children into ever deeper into poverty through its welfare reforms, made ever more children homeless, and more families dependent for their meals on food banks.
(2). Independent provider plans could lead to ‘privatisation’ of social work, warn experts
(3) Inequalities in Child Welfare: Towards a New Policy, Research and Action Agenda
Paul Bywaters p2. British Journal of Social Work (2013) 1–18