A matter of trust! – the ‘spinning off’ of Birmingham’s Children’s social care

Children’s services support the most vulnerable children in our society. They are in our care; we, the state, are their parents; and we are failing them. It is our duty to put this right; to say poorly performing local authorities: improve, or be taken over. We will not stand by while children are let down by inadequate social services. (my emphasis) (1)

David Cameron – the Prime Minister

Birmingham City Council recently announced it had commissioned Deloitte to draw up plans which could see Council run Children’s social care services being transferred to an independent Trust. The Trust announcement was made immediately prior to the screening of a critical Dispatches programme where an ‘undercover’ social worker filmed within the social care department at the end of May.

The Trust proposal was discussed at the full meeting of the Council which took place on 14th June 2016 where the Conservative group called for the resignation of Cllr Brigid Jones the lead Cabinet member for Children’s services.

1. How did we get here?
The arrival of Birmingham’s Trust proposal has to be seen in overlapping national and local contexts. David Cameron has made improving Children’s social care a priority as part of the reforming agenda of this current Government. A series of high profile announcements have been made on issues such as speeding up adoption and in May a new Children and Social Work Bill was introduced following the Queen’s Speech.

A zero-tolerance policy to failing Local Authority children’s social care departments is part of this National Government approach, where:

…For the first time, a formalised academy style system will be put in place so that any Local Authority judged as inadequate by Ofsted has to show significant improvement within 6 months or be taken over. (2)

It has been noted that the proposed treatment of Council run children’s social care is a direct policy transfer from the field of education. (3) Even Section 15 of the new Children and Social Work Bill echoes the academisation policy in schools by creating opportunities for Children’s social care departments to opt out of certain statutory requirements which govern how services should be run and which protect the rights of children receiving those services.

The longstanding failings in the running of child protection services have led to some children not being properly safeguarded in Birmingham. Birmingham’s safeguarding services were rated by OFSTED as inadequate in 2008 and they remain so, further inspections have all been highly critical of the Council’s ability to protect children. There is a sad roll call of children in the city who have died at the hands of their parents or carers where professionals failed to act, which continue to create an imperative for change.

The only change this Conservative Government can conceive of in addressing complex social needs are through the mechanisms of privatisation and the market. Committed to austerity and to attacking the role of the local state and reducing local democracy, privatisation is the Government’s one trick pony.

Birmingham as the largest Local Authority in the country has been a major conundrum for the last and present Government in advancing its privatisation agenda in children’s social care. Birmingham Children’s services were the subject of a major DfE review led by Prof Julian Le Grand to advise the Government on possible options for the future delivery of services, reporting in March 2014. Among the review findings were that there was insufficient provider capacity (e.g. companies or organisations ) which could potentially run outsourced children’s services and that the Council did not have the strategic intelligence to enable it to effectively commission services from external providers.(4) Even if it wanted to, the Government could not privatise these complex statutory services in the normal way.

The Government has been further constrained by the effective defeat of the Con-Dem Government in 2015 when it consulted on proposals that would have allowed ‘for profit’ companies to tender to run child protection services. The Con-Dem Government retreated when faced with a massive professional and public response opposing the direct privatisation of public services to private companies. As has been noted “creating a market in children’s services has been the Tories’ thwarted aim for some time.” (5)

The Government has intervened in Birmingham through the appointment of a Commissioner with direct oversight and input into the Council’s improvement plans for children’s social care, and reporting directly to the Children’s Minister in the DfE on progress. Lord Norman Warner the Government Commissioner from 2014-15 was also charged with looking at how to improve the commissioning capacity of the council. Birmingham is now in the final year of a 3 year improvement plan which was underpinned by an additional £30m p.a. budget for the period of the plan.

2. Children’s services trusts – “an idea whose time has come!”
Unable to pursue direct outsourcing as its favoured route and blocked by the absence of the capacity and the interest of alternative providers to whom services could be outsourced the Government has over the last 2 years increasingly opted for the development of Trusts as an alternative model for delivering children’s social care services.

Being freed from the restrictions of direct ‘local authority control’ the proposed Trusts with academy-style freedoms “will develop new systems of delivering social care and trial new ways of working with families and children.” (6) The promotion of trusts will enable “the emergence of new not-for-profit children’s social care organisations as part of a more dynamic and diverse range of provision.” (7) New more entrepreneurial providers acting as innovators within a supposed market context is the Conservative vision for Children’s social care.

Doncaster was selected by the Government to be the first authority to be stripped of their services which were moved into a Trust arrangement in 2014 and the same happened in Slough in 2015. The Doncaster Trust is constituted as a private company not as a CIC or mutual. These are very new organisations with no proven track record of improvement.

The idea of ‘academy style freedoms’ being applied as Children’s social care services are ‘spun off’ is a highly ambiguous and potentially dangerous idea. The state’s ability to intervene in private family life, to protect and potentially remove children from the care of their families, and then take responsibility for providing for their care is covered by a depth of statute and regulation. The role of the Local Authority in regard to its duties and responsibilities to children is highly legally defined. Included in these duties is the Local Authority’s responsibility to act as a corporate parent to the children in its care.

The accountability of the local authority for the services they provide for children under statute is a critical matter. As we shall see later, where accountability and local political leadership are weak services fail and children are unnecessarily harmed. For the Conservative Government the thrust is to weaken and reconfigure our current forms of local governance and democracy including removing areas of public policy from direct democratic oversight. This is potentially the case in Children’s social care in the move towards the Trust model.

Issues of democracy and accountability must be central to interrogating the claims for these new Trust arrangements with ‘academy style freedoms’.

3. A voluntary move?
The announcement by the Council on 24th May 2016 to move Children’s social care service out of the council and into a Trust is a complete volte-face by Council leaders. As recently as 1st March 2016 Cllr Jones denounced the imposition of Trusts and outsourcing of children’s services in Doncaster and Slough in the strongest terms, stating that it was an untested approach being carried out on the most vulnerable, and that Children’s services must remain in-house as they represent the core business of the council.(8)

In under two months that untested approach has become the ‘logical next step’ for the Council in its move to improve social care services. Cllr Jones claimed in Council that Birmingham is exploring the trust option as a voluntary move made possible by the recent introduction of the Children and Social Work Bill. (9)

This is a questionable claim by Cllr Jones and is an attempt to gain political capital when the wolves are in fact at the door. The DfE is explicitly clear:

“Although Birmingham City Council has made some improvements to the way it runs its children’s services, we know this progress has not gone far enough, fast enough…

“The Prime Minister was clear that we cannot tolerate failure in children’s services. That is why we (e.g. the DfE – emphasis added)) are looking at the best next steps including moving towards a voluntary trust.” (10)

What is happening in Birmingham is once again being determined by the drive of the Conservative Government towards the privatisation of the delivery of social work and the continuing attack upon Birmingham as a Labour authority.

4. Rate of improvement in children’s services in Birmingham
The grounds for moving forward to consider the Trust option are in fact disputed. There is a difference between the assessment of the DfE, Birmingham City Council and Lord Warner the former DfE appointed Children’s Commissioner over the rate of improvement of children’s services in Birmingham.

As we have seen the assessment of Department for Education is that children’s services had improved, but “progress has not gone far enough, fast enough”. The view of Lord Norman Warner seems to run counter to the DfE position and it was Warner’s job to directly advise the DfE on the Council’s improvement plan.

At the time of the Trust announcement Warner went on record to state that there had been “significant improvements” but more was needed. Further he said he felt moving to a trust was a rushed decision as it had no proven track record of providing change. (11) Such was Lord Warner’s concern he asked a question in the Lords regarding the timing and circumstances of the Trust announcement.

The Council’s own assessment of its progress to improve safeguarding services was that it was ‘on track’ and that the key targets contained in the plan had been met, remembering that the improvement plan has been agreed by the DfE and its implementation had been overseen by a Government appointed Commissioner.

So we have a situation where the DfE’s assessment of progress and justification for action is at variance with the person they appointed to oversee and advise the Government on progress. This has all the hallmarks of a political move. The current position of the DfE has a familiar history where local public services are deliberately constructed as failing to justify interventions and privatisation.

5. Evaluating the claims in favour of a Trust
Following the complete reversal of the position of the Council leadership they are now advancing a range of claims of the benefits of setting up a Trust to run children’s social care services. There are a number of claims put forward by Cllr Jones in favour of the Trust arrangement which include:

  • A break from the legacy of the past
  • It will set up an organisation with an exclusive focus on social work
  • The Trust will provide improved conditions for social workers to practice and to safeguard children more effectively
  • It represents a ‘logical next step’ on the improvement journey.

These claims in part mark a return to the Le Grand Review which argued the need to introduce pseudo-market frameworks as the mechanisms to improvement; in particular the commissioner/provider split. The Trust model in theory provides the delivery vehicle that was missing in 2014 when he reported. Further since 2014 progress has been claimed for the Council’s commissioning capacity which has seen the recent privatisation of the Council’s Children’s Homes, and move to competitively tender the whole Early Years service.

(i). “Clear break or New start!’
Removing the running of children’s social work services from city council and transferring them to a different organisation was first raised by the DfE commissioned review of the authority undertaken by Prof Julian Le Grand in 2014. Le Grand favoured the Council retaining a commissioning role with providers contracted to run these statutory services on its behalf.

This option has the major advantage of providing a clear break (emphasis added) with the past and the potential for the creation of a new culture and practice. The challenge to the service would be provided by Birmingham City Council itself as commissioner. (12)

Cllr Jones has recently claimed that such a new start would be a major advantage for a possible Trust arrangement. It is still for her to explain how the ‘clean break’ position provides any tangible benefits that will better enable current frontline Managers and practitioners to practice. The ‘clean break’ position appears primarily to be a rhetorical device to justify the introduction of a commissioner/provider split and for the ‘spin out’ of services.

(ii). Trust would provide a focussed business model.

An intelligent commissioner with a Board focussed upon delivery could create the right degree of focus upon a shared aim of being a city that has the highest ambitions for those children and families who need the most help in childhood. Indeed the absence of this type of creative tension (emphasis added) is a part of the past. (13)

The emphasis here is on inserting pseudo market relations into the equation e.g. the creative tensions. We can also start to see the extension of the accountability chain from the Council political leadership, to Senior Council managers overseeing the intelligent commissioning, to Trust Board leadership (with its own governance arrangements) responsible for the delivery of services. There is potentially more that could go wrong by introducing new elements into this now more complex relationship.

The second part of the claim for the Trust as a focused business model is that it would put social workers and social work at its centre and with dedicated expertise being available. Why a Trust model would offer this advantage over other models including present arrangements remains hypothetical and has yet to be explained.

(iii). The Trust would allow competitive pay and conditions of social workers
The need to be able to attract and retain social workers requires a competitive salary, good working conditions and above all a feeling of being well managed and supported. These options could perhaps (emphasis added) best be secured in the longer term within a Trust structure. (14)

Stabilising the social work workforce is a critical task if services are to improve and children’s well being ensured. The recruitment and retention of qualified social workers has been a critical issue for Birmingham, as in most neighbouring authorities, and is a clear priority of the existing improvement plan. Replacing temporary agency social workers with permanently employed staff is critical as is retaining workers and encouraging them to stay.

Significant progress has in fact been made towards stabilising the workforce with the Council claiming that over the last year that staff turnover has reduced from 20.5% to 16.8%. The proportion of agency social workers has been reduced from 30% to 23.5% of the 700 strong social work workforce. Further caseloads have reduced from an average of 25+ to 15 cases per social worker. All targets of the improvement plan. (15)

A number of critical questions arise: what is currently stopping the Council paying competitive salaries to social workers and maintaining reasonable caseloads and why does this require a Trust arrangement? Cllr Jones should clarify whether she is proposing to move the contracts of those employed in the Trust outside of the Green Book and the local single status agreement and what improvements in the conditions of social workers would impinge on being transferred into a trust.

The Council’s own options appraisal suggests an adverse impact of moving to a Trust upon the recruitment of social workers: For external candidates (and some internal) there is the appeal of working for an organisation focused on social care but may not appeal to some if the council is no longer the employer. (16)

6. Counter claims to the Trust model
The arguments above in favour of the move to a trust are thin gruel indeed, with limited weight and substance particularly when balanced against the counter claims and concerns particularly for the costs and disruption to services involved in setting up a Trust arrangement.

(i). There is no evidence base of Trust arrangements leading to improving services
The Council itself acknowledges that there is no evidence in favour of Trusts leading to improvement. On 1st March 2016 Cllr Jones told Council that it was an untested model being tried out at the expense of the most vulnerable group. The papers on the Trust proposal prepared for Council tell us:

There have been significant changes since Le Grand’s evaluation. The law has been changed to explicitly prohibit a private sector provider. Equally, there are now Councils that have completed the process of moving services into Trust arrangements and some of the legal complexity has therefore been reduced by these precedents. It is however still too recent for evidence to emerge to support a view on whether Trusts are an effective improvement intervention. (emphasis added) (17)

Nationally Doncaster led the way with the formation of a Trust to run its Children’s services but “Over a year after its establishment Doncaster was, despite some improvements, still found to be ‘inadequate’… Similarly, Slough was rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted while in a children’s trust, but this inspection happened only a short time after the trust has been established.” (18)

(ii). Improvement can be led from within Local Authorities
Conversely there is plenty of evidence that Local Authorities are able to change and improve their children’s social care services. This week Cornwall children’s social services were rated as good by OFSTED having been previously identified as inadequate in 2010.

How did it do it? Wallis, [Cornwall’s lead Councillor] says there are no magic ingredients. It takes sustained investment, patience, political commitment and honesty. Steady leadership (Cornwall has, unusually, had the same director of children’s services for six years). Listening to families and children. Lower staff caseloads. Engagement with social workers to rebuild culture and confidence.(19)

The Conservatives continue to polarise the terms of debate in regard to promoting their public reform agenda where the public sector is bad and private sector is good. The very public failures to protect individual children are presented as an aspect of the general public character of the services that have failed. More complex explanations of ‘failure’ are eschewed to enable the banality of proposed market solutions to rule.

(iii). Impact and costs on services of setting up the Trust
Even the Council’s own assessment raises questions as to impact of setting up the Trust in diverting management attention from improving frontline services to creating a complex new organisational arrangement. It:

Will distract the service from the immediate improvements required and will divert resources into design and implementation of the Trust.  (20)

This point is amplified by what the Cabinet member told Council on 1st March 2016, Cllr Jones stated:

I want my Managers focused not on TUPE and contracts but on sorting out partnerships and frontline practice. I want the them to have the cash they need to do that. (21)

The Council estimates that it would take at least two years from a decision being made to the Trust becoming operational to the supposed benefits of the Trust taking effect.

Prof Ray Jones, a key critic of the Government’s social work reforms, has said that the priority for Birmingham is stability not the change that will be wrought by the move to the Trust:

However, Birmingham is to be churned up and set back again. The time and attention that should have been given to creating stability and service improvement will instead be deployed to set up the complex new organisational and governance arrangements of an independent trust, with more complicated, confused and costly accountability for crucial statutory responsibilities to help families and to protect children. (22)

In addition to management time and capacity there will be significant cost to setting up a new Trust to run services and these are resources which arguably could and should be better spent on funding frontline services that directly work with children and their families. £250k has already been committed to pay for the consultants Deloitte to undertake the development work on the Trust proposal. Cllr Jones told the Council Meeting that funding was being sought from the Government’s Improvement Programme to fund the development of the Trust.

There needs to be the full disclosure of the costs of setting up and running the Trust and the opportunity costs for direct service provision understood.

(iv). Accountability and political leadership
The critical objection to the Trust proposal is on the issue of public accountability. It is the historic failure of that accountability that has been identified as a critical factor contributing toward the failure of services.

The experience of local authorities which have not been performing well in protecting children has been seen as directly related to inadequate political governance and managerial leadership and with councils not taking ‘a whole council approach’ to the welfare and safety of children. (23)

A key finding of the Le Grand Review was the “lack of integral or consistent political interest” in Children’s social care in Birmingham by different administrations running the Council over time which had significantly contributed towards its failure. To counter this problem the implementation of the current three year improvement plan has been overseen by the Quartet which includes the Leader of the Council as well as the Chief Executive.

The solution is more and better political leadership and improved local governance to enable Councillors to pursue their public mandate to promote the welfare of the children in their authority. This is a problem of politics and local democracy. The Government’s solution is the marketisation of services and the insertion of market mechanisms and entrepreneurial actors into the field of children’s social care. This represents a potential diffusion and weakening of existing governance, to be replaced by market relationships of commissioning and contracting.

6. Concluding comments:
The best advocate against the Trust proposal is the slightly younger Cllr Jones who must forever be reminded of her statement in Council on 1st March 2016 (24), her position can be summarised as follows:

  • Children’s services as a matter of principle and priority should be directly run by the
  • Council as a commitment to the children of the city.
  • Children’s social care services are the ‘core business’ of the council.
  • Contracting out services and the problems of contract management are proven to be beset with problems
  • Children’s Trusts are a form of outsourcing and privatisation being imposed by Government on local authorities
  • Trusts are an untested approach being applied to the most vulnerable group in society
  • It will consume the time and energy of Managers and will divert them from frontline practice.
  • It is disruptive to improvement that has and is planned to be made.

Her most Senior Managers are arguing that Birmingham wants to be “at the forefront” of the Department for Education’s social work reform programme. (25) The question has to be asked as to whether senior officers in conjunction with the DfE are now leading local policy and what has become of our local political leadership at this critical juncture?

While we have focused on the Trust proposal other forms and threats of privatisation have entered the field under the reform agenda. Chief among these is the proposed partnership between the City Council with Frontline which will see the programme provide 24 social work training places in 2017 as part of a planned national roll out supported by the Government. (25) The Frontline programme is an initiative of the Ark Foundation which is supported by merchant banks and management consultancy companies. Part of Frontline’s declared goal is to create an ‘officer class’ of social workers as it promotes the recruitment of graduates from the Russell Group universities into its programme and seeks for them to become the future leaders of the profession.(26) Frontline is intended as a deliberate threat to University provided social work training and the content of the curriculum they teach.

In Birmingham as elsewhere the Government is seeking to consciously disrupt local authority children’s social care through the application of private sector ideas such as disruptive innovation to a sector that critically needs effective political leadership, stability and continuity. The arrival of the Trust model in Birmingham together with the Frontline programme should be seen as part of this disruptive strategy.


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