On the Voluntary Children’s Services Trust and problems of being a Corporate parent 

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The fault lines of the proposed ‘Voluntary Children’s Services Trust’ model and its relationship with the Local authority started to appear at the discussion at Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

The report prepared by Deloitte setting out the case for change for moving some social work services into a Trust arrangement was accepted by Council’s Cabinet and received backing from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Groups.

A set of organisational options for a Trust were identified by Deloitte and a further report will be made to Cabinet in September setting out the preferred shortlist of models. Cllr Brigid Jones, the responsible Cabinet member,  also said the Council would undertake a ‘market testing’ exercise over the summer to identify whether there were sufficient people of the right sort who could serve as Trustees on a future Trust Board.

The Deloitte report makes not one reference to the role of the Local authority in how it would exercise its corporate parenting responsibilities towards those young people who will in future be receiving services via a Trust.

Rather the report says an ‘alternative delivery model’ should have  “an organisational design that enables leadership and management autonomy for decision making and accountability for the service.” 

There are a wide range of specific duties and responsibilities for Local authorities to individual children set out under statute and regulation.

Local authorities have a responsibility for “improving outcomes and actively promoting the life chances of children they look after has become known as ‘corporate parenting’… The role of the corporate parent is to act as the best possible parent for each child they look after and to advocate on his/her behalf to secure the best possible outcomes.” (1)

In Cabinet Cllr John Hunt, the Liberal Democrat group leader, questioned the failure to include the principle of the accountability of the Trust to the Council in Deloitte’s principles for evaluating the different organisational models.

Hunt had first raised this issue of the Trusts accountability at the Council meeting on 14th June 2016 which originally debated the proposed Trust initiative.  Hunt successfully moved an amendment to the main motion that “this Council believes the level of accountability of the Trust to Council should be defined broadly so that all Councillors continue to exercise their corporate parenting responsibilities.” (2)

Cllr Susan Barnett, Chair of the Schools, Children and Families Overview and Scrutiny Committee asked a related question on whether any of the proposed Trust options make it less likely to impede reporting to Scrutiny Committee?

But these interventions seem to be missing the bigger picture.

The move to create ‘academy style freedoms’ for new organisations to deliver children’s social care services is a key aspect of the Government’s social work reform agenda.  What is currently happening in Birmingham must be seen in this national context and specifically that of the Children and Social Work Bill currently before Parliament.

The controversial Section 15 now re-designated Clause 29 of the Bill seeks to suspend children’s entitlements under children’s social care law to allow local authorities to explore new ways of working.

Clause 15 of the Bill gives the Secretary of State an enabling power to exempt a local authority from a requirement under children’s social care legislation, or to modify the way in which such legislation is imposed on that authority – with the stated aim of allowing authorities to test new ways of working. These arrangements can be put in place for up to three years, with the potential to extend for a further up to three years. (3)

This legislation has the potential to fundamentally undermine the current Corporate Parenting role of the local authority and will allow Councils as a corporate parent to potentially opt out of legislation which govern their legal responsibilities to young people.

Councillors Hunt and Barnett might have more usefully asked whether there has been any discussion between the Cabinet member, her senior council officers and with the DfE seeking to explore whether to derogate the proposed Trust arrangements from any existing legislation?

Seeking a commitment that Birmingham City Council will not in the future seek a derogation from the children’s legislation would be a highly effective way to assert the current role of the corporate parent in protecting the rights of our most vulnerable children.

The exercise of ‘academy style freedoms’ by new provider organisations, the continued role of local democratic accountability and the responsibilities for corporate parenting by local authorities are significant contradictions contained of the Government’s social work reform agenda and deserve a robust local response from local councillors.

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