In June 2014, it was widely reported that the government had abandoned plans to privatise child protection services. However, these services are still under threat.
When the Department for Education published draft regulations that would have allowed private companies to run children’s social services such as child protection, all hell broke loose. The Guardian ran a front page story, 7 leading social work and child protection professionals co-signed a petitionary letter, and three other petitions gathered more than 70,000 signatures in just a couple of days. An online consultation was held, in which 94% of respondents disagreed with the proposals, and just 2% agreed with the prospect of allowing private companies such as G4S and Serco to profit from the care of vulnerable children. It was a slam dunk for opponents.
The government issued a ‘clarification’ of the regulations shortly after, stating that only charities and not-for-profit orgnanisations would be able to bid to deliver child protection. This in itself was welcome, and would never have happened without the incredible campaigning efforts of all those involved.
However, two significant problems remain.
First is the matter of governance. The government will place zero regulations or oversight of such organisations after they win their contracts. As Ray Jones explained in his Guardian Society column last June:
The government still intends that not-for-profit organisations who may take on children’s social services will not themselves be regulated or registered. They will not be inspected in their own right by Ofsted. Instead it is the local authority (contracting out these services) that will be inspected – and only through this process that not-for-profit organisations will be visited by inspectors. They will not be rated. It is the local authority that will be held responsible and its rating will be determined by the quality of the services it contracts.
This decision is in direct contravention of the Laming Inquiry Report which followed the death of Victoria Climbié. On 25 February 2000, the eight-year-old succumbed to months of neglect and abuse, and died. The torture meted out in the final months of her life included starvation, cigarette burns, repeated beatings with bike chains and belt buckles, and hammer blows to her toes. When establishing a cause of death, the coroner found no fewer than 128 injuries over her tiny and emaciated body.
The case was made additionally devastating by news that authorities had 12 separate opportunities to save her during this period of abuse – but each time, social services, the NHS and the Metropolitan Police sent the girl back to her abusers. To help ensure this never happened again, clear accountability and authority for child services was promised. This was enshrined in the 2004 Children Act, which mandated that the lead councillor for children’s services and the director of children’s services should be personally and directly accountable for all areas of children’s services – including child protection. That is not possible if those delivering the services are not obliged to follow any rules, regulations or guidance provided by these officers – which will be the case in the new system.
The second issue is the back door. All private sector companies have to do to get to deliver these contracts is set up a not-for-profit subsidiary to provide the services.The parent company then charges its subsidiary for management, administration and estates services at a cost determined by the parent company – this is how the mega-corporations like G4S and Serco will reap their profits. Anyone who believes this is too contrived need only take a look at the audience for the recent education department briefing on the matter: KPMG, G4S, Mouchel and Amey were all in attendance.
In short, this was not a U-turn, it was a placatory move with no real substance. While the public breathed a sigh of relief, the government pushed ahead with their privatisation plans out of sight and out of mind.
Since 2008, and against a backdrop of significant budget and staff cuts, social services have delivered major improvements. This includes increasing investigations by 60%, child protection plans managed by local councils by 50%, and local authority care proceeding applications to the courts by 104%. As a thank you, the government is selling off the service while cutting Local Authority budgets by a further 9% from April this year.
We have already seen what failure looks like when the government commercializes critical public services.
In the NHS, we had the near 1,500 un-necessary deaths as a result of the MidStaffs scandal.
In border security we had the killing of deportee Jimmy Mubenga by G4S guards.
In the benefits system we have seen the 32 sick and disabled people a week dying while being put through un-necessary Work Capability Assessments by Atos (and now Maximus). One of these people was 49-year-old Linda Wootton, who was on 10 medications a day after a double lung and heart transplant. She was weak and suffered regular bouts of blackouts. She was put through the Atos Work Capability Assessment and as she lay in a hospital bed dying, she received confirmation she was ‘fit to work’. She died just nine days later. Her husband Peter said:
“I sat there and listened to my wife drown in her own bodily fluids. It took half an hour for her to die; a woman who is apparently fit for work”.
All of this misery can be traced back to the failure of commercialization. The government continues its efforts to turn every public service into a private business, where commercial interests compete with the public interest. The resulting financial and human costs are not paid by them, but by all of us. So it’s on us to say no.
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