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Sat 17 April 2021

The Department for Education has made it clear that the head of the review will face funding constraints and operate under the watchful gaze of Government officials, reports Sam Bright

Further concerns have been raised about the Government’s independent review of children’s social care, following the publication of the agreement between the Department for Education (DfE) and the head of the review.

On 2 March, the Government published details of the contract signed with Josh MacAlister, the founder of a social care charity, who will lead the process.

According to the Government, the review will be a ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunity to “reshape how children interact with the care system, looking at the process from referral through to becoming looked after”.

The agreement was published on the Government’s contracts portal with heavy redactions – effectively eliminating the sections that refer to the scope of the work. However, the contract was separately published on a website called Bidstat, without the redactions to this section. It is unclear whether this was done by mistake or not.

The document states that the DfE “cannot assume any additional funding from the Exchequer to meet the recommendations” made by MacAlister in the review. It further emphasises that, if money is needed, the department must “demonstrate how, and over what time period, this would be offset by savings across national and/or local public services”.

This may lead to questions over the appetite for reform of children’s social care within Government, given that meaningful change will require additional funding.

“Hopes have been raised all over the country that this review will bring about huge changes in children’s social care, with the views and experiences of children and families centre-stage,” said Carolyne Willow, director of the children’s rights group Article39. “It is inconceivable that ideas and proposals would not require public funds, just as any once-in-a-generation review of the NHS or education would inevitably point towards additional resources.”

What’s more, the agreement compounds concerns that MacAlister will not be truly independent in the recommendations he makes.

One section insists that Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) officials “must be involved throughout the review to support the modelling of any direct and indirect costs of potential recommendations to [local authorities]”.

MacAlister’s ‘supporting panel’ must also include people with financial backgrounds and experience in cost control, the agreement states, as well as people with local government experience and representatives from the What Works Centre – a Government-funded children’s social care research agency – and Social Finance, a not-for-profit organisation that works on “tackling social problems in the UK and globally”.

Byline Times has previously reported on concerns about MacAlister’s independence, given that his social care charity, Frontline, has been substantially funded by the UK Government. Indeed, it was awarded a £45 million contract from the DfE to train social workers in 2019 and was paid £4.3 million in December – one month before MacAlister’s new role leading the review was announced.

Frontline launched in 2013 with a £1 million grant approved by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove. The organisation is currently chaired by Camilla Cavendish, former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit under former Prime Minister David Cameron, who is now a member of the House of Lords. Cavendish herself was tasked with leading a Government review into adult social care.

MacAlister will step down from his role as CEO of Frontline to lead the review – something that is stipulated in his contract. However, when the role ends, with the permission of the DfE, he may resume his work with his organisation – though will be prevented from carrying out any lobbying for six months after the expiration of the contract.

“A few suggest that because I’ve secured Government funding for charitable programmes I won’t be independent,” MacAlister has previously said. “By this logic, those in local authorities, academia or elsewhere who secure public funding for projects would fail the independence test.

“If that’s the logic then fair enough, but I ask that those who are sceptical to judge me by my actions. Helping to get children a decent and fair start on life has been the focus of my career and that’s what will drive this review.”

However, the tight constrictions of the agreement will surely renew doubts about how radical and independent the review will prove to be.

“Many of us have suspected from the start that the Government already knows what it wants to happen from this review and this contract confirms our worst fears,” said Willow. “It’s time for the Government to come clean about what it’s planning for children’s social care and to admit this review is independent in name only.”

According to the agreement, the final report should be shared, ready for publication, by 31 March 2022. For 13 months of work, MacAlister will be paid £141,329, although as a contractor rather than a salaried member of staff. The Education Secretary is paid a £149,437 annual salary.

The DfE was approached for comment.

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