What do Capita, the Cambrian Group and Core Assets have in common? They were all invited among others by Birmingham City Council to an event held in December 2014 entitled ‘Developing strategic partnering options for Birmingham’s children’s services’. They are also private companies which provide services for young people for profit and on the hunt for new opportunities.
The market testing event was presided over by Lord Norman Warner who was until recently the Government appointed Commissioner with responsibility for overseeing improvements in children’s safeguarding services in the city. Lord Warner was charged by the DfE with promoting the commissioning of services by the Council as part of the safeguarding improvement plans, and on his watch the Council’s cabinet made the decision to outsource the remaining Children’s Homes run by the Council.
Warner, a Labour peer, and former Health Minister under Tony Blair, was appointed as a Government Commissioner in March 2014 following the critical Le Grand Review of Birmingham’s children’s social care. Safeguarding services in Birmingham have been in difficulty over at least a ten year period and have received repeated inadequate ratings following OFSTED inspections.
The Le Grand review commissioned by the Department for Education offered an analysis of why some children in Birmingham were not being adequately protected pointing to factors including the historic underfunding of social care services, repeated management re-organisations and changes of leadership, and improvement not being a political priority for successive Council leaderships.
Le Grand reported back to the Government in February 2014 and made recommendations on ways forward for the struggling authority including looking at a range of future options for the delivery of these critical services. It is noteworthy that Sir Julian Le Grand is a leading academic advocate of public sector reform and of market solutions for public services. Le Grand found that there was insufficient provider capacity to hand over the running of these social work services to the running of private companies and social enterprises.
Le Grand tentatively proposed that Birmingham should increasingly move to become a commissioning authority while simultaneously seeking to increase alternative outsourced provision. His review also recommended that the Government undertake more work to look out how complex care services managing high levels of risk could be moved out of council control by creating capacity among alternative care providers.
It is against this backdrop that the market testing event took place in December with the Council seeking to ‘engage with a broader section of suppliers than was routine and to discuss the potential approaches to the challenges faced by BCC with this range of suppliers.’ (1) Discussion, dialogue and partnership being the order of the day as future providers were briefed on possible opportunities for running and developing services on behalf of the Council. The services under discussion were social work recruitment, placements for looked after children and early years.
The move to the Council becoming a Commissioning authority for children’s services is established in the three year commissioning strategy agreed by the Council’s cabinet in April 2015. Here the commissioning approach:
…is more in keeping with our commitment to engage partners more fully in service design, service specification and service delivery, learning from the feedback our partners and providers have given us, and in recognition of the systemic nature of children’s services.
This means that we will engage ‘collaboratively’ with children’s service providers to ensure that the most appropriate services are specified and commissioned to deliver our outcomes. (2)
In this up-side down world of partnership engagement there is a proposal for the charity Barnardo’s to be directly involved in the commissioning work on Early Years for the Council. In turn, as a provider of early years services, Barnardo’s could find itself well placed to tender for these services.
In March 2015 Warner gave his final report to the Education and Vulnerable Children’s Scrutiny Committee and stated that there were alternative providers ‘who could make a better fist of running services than the Council’. In addition Warner identified that services for Care leavers could potentially be commissioned; it should be noted that St Christopher’s Fellowship, a voluntary sector provider of aftercare services, attended the market-testing event.
The most recent Cabinet meeting agreed proposals to procure a pilot to test how Early Help services might be provided and funded. Early Help services aim ‘to support a child, young person or their family early in the life of a problem, as soon as it emerges’. (Birmingham Safeguarding Board). Under consideration is Early Help services to be fully commissioned.
But it is Early Years which are at the forefront of the services to be commissioned as from April 2016; Children’s Centres are currently provided by a range of organisations including those related to the Council. The rationale for these service changes is the need to target children in greatest need but at heart it is about making significant cuts through ‘a more cost effective model of delivery that saves £11m in 2015/16 recurrent’. Whatever the likely efficiencies, £11m represents a lot of nursery workers hours and a significant loss of placements to children who would otherwise benefit from early years provision.
The Labour Group is lining up service after service for commissioning and outsourcing. The list currently includes Children’s Homes, Early Years provision, services for Care leavers and probably Early Help. The Labour Councillors on the Education and Vulnerable Children’s Scrutiny Committee barely mutter a critical word.
While Lord Norman Warner’s term as Children’s Commissioner ended as of 31st March 2015 the oversight for this direction of travel is maintained by the Improvement Board established by the Council in response to the Kerslake Review of the governance of Birmingham City Council and which reports to the DCLG.
In the last Parliament legal changes were made which now allow Local Authorities to delegate statutory social work services to third-party providers and which allow National Government to pressurise Councils to outsource those services where they are perceived to be failing. The election of a majority Conservative Government is likely to see an acceleration of existing moves to fragment and privatise children’s social care services by introducing new organisational models for delivering services and increasing the role of private companies and social enterprises in providing services.
The evidence base that the marketisation and privatisation of children’s social care services will lead to children being more effectively protected and ensure the welfare of vulnerable children is non-existent. This is change of the wrong sort driven by politics and ideology of neoliberalism and is likely to further destabilise these critical services already in a state of deep crisis.
(1) FoI request – Market testing event of Children’s social care providers.
(2) Birmingham City Council Children and Family Services Commissioning Plan 2015 – 2017.