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Public Service, Private Interests: What Is Behind The Government’s Care Review?

Disposable, dispersible, profit-making – fears for the future of the children’s social care sector mount around the forthcoming Care Review

Photo: Andrew Fox/Alamy

Public Service, Private InterestsWhat Is Behind the Government’s Care Review?

Disposable, dispersible, profit-making – fears for the future of the children’s social care sector mount around the forthcoming Care Review

“I spent around 16 years in both residential and foster placements and in one I experienced trauma and abuse,” says Ian Gould, a former probation officer. “The state failed to look after me.” 

Gould’s private and professional experiences impelled him become an ambassador for the group, Every Child Leaving Care Matters, and to join a campaign organisation, the Care Review Watch Alliance. The Alliance, consisting of specialists, social workers and care experienced people, is raising alarm bells about the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care launched by the Government last March with Josh MacAlister as its chair.

Children in the care system have long been disposable, despite the warm words of politicians. At one time, this was visually summed up by children having their belongings chucked in black bin bags as they moved from one placement to another. To a large extent, that practice has been eradicated, but a view of children as troublesome items to be moved around the system stalks the Care Review – with one key concern that the sector is becoming increasingly marketised, rather than focused on relationships. 

The Government has made it clear that any proposals the Care Review comes up with must be cost-neutral and that any changes must be made within this Parliament – with critics observing that the Government’s majority is being used to introduce swift reform. MacAlister has now set out an interim Case for Change after a few months of work, which gives a sense of the review’s focus.

Fears are mounting that privatisation of every part of the system, from social work training to fostering, to big businesses running residential care, will only accelerate once the review has been completed.

Byline Times previously dug into the firms making money out of the care system. The large-scale privatisation fires a warning shot that the Government may plan to deregulate and weaken existing legislative protections in order to free up a lucrative market. This is difficult to reconcile with the key principle of the 1989 Children Act – that all decisions are considered with the best interests of the child in mind.

Ray Jones, Emeritus Professor of Social Work at Kingston University and St. George’s, University of London, and the author of In Whose Interest? The Privatisation of Child Protection and Social Work, told Byline Times: “My concern about the Care Review is another step towards all of social services to being in the market place. This marketisation needs to be seen in the context of the trajectory of the Government from 2012-13 onwards, when the Government explicitly stated its intention to open up a marketplace in children’s social care and social work.”

Framing of the Care Review

Having worked briefly as a teacher, Josh MacAlister launched Frontline, a fast-track training model for social workers. He resigned from it to chair the Care Review. 

The interim Case for Change argued for urgent change in the sector, called attention to the lengthy assessment period for new foster carers, and said that the system “pushes away help from neighbours, extended family and the wider community”. It did acknowledge poverty and deprivation and called for a focus  on “levelling up outcomes” in children’s social care. However, austerity and the policies that buttressed it, went unmentioned.

The Care Review Watch Alliance charges that the Review “purposefully underplays the impact of successive Conservative Government cuts to services on the challenges faced by the children’s social care system today”. It also calls for the review to reverse its support for the Government’s recent legislative change to remove the right of care for children aged over 16.

Another suspicion is that the review’s outcomes will split child protection from family help and intervention and potentially even privatise child protection and care proceedings.

Fiona, a social worker from the north-west of England and a member of the Care Review Watch Alliance, told Byline Times that “introducing a profit motive into care proceedings would be disastrous” because “child protection is based on a legal framework, and a skilled professional is meant to make a judgement… I don’t see how separating out child protection will work”. 

Ian Gould points to the similarities with the ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ privatisation process, in which probation (the service charged with supervising offenders serving sentences in the community and those released from prison) was restructured – a separation that has since been reversed because of perceived failures.  

A Sector Where there Should Be No Market?

The sense of betrayal from some in the sector is already palpable. Earlier this year the regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced that it would lead an investigation into the privatisation of the social care market for children and invited evidence. Josh MacAlister had written to it suggesting the study.

Jones told Byline Times that he was suspicious about the referral. “The reason might be to promote efficiency in the children’s social care market and it suggests that it is the route the review might be taking,” he said. But then came another turn. The CMA announced it was downgrading its market investigation to a report, with an interim version due to be published in October. 

“Perhaps the CMA thought it was not sensible to have a commercial market but it concluded that [the market investigation] was too hot to handle,” Jones added. “Instead, they stepped to one side.”

Article 39 – a charity which promotes the human rights of children – has complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) following the CMA’s refusal to release correspondence it had with MacAlister and with the Department for Education prior to launching its market study on children’s social care.

The ICO has confirmed that the complaint will be investigated but has yet to allocate a caseworker. Article 39 told Byline Times: “It is important this correspondence is put into the public domain as these early discussions may reveal what the different parties hoped to achieve from the market study, and why it was thought the CMA rather than the care review was best-placed to consider profit-making in services for very vulnerable children and their families.”


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A Charge of Cronyism

One of the main reasons for scepticism about the direction of travel is the sense that accelerating private sector involvement in the sector is coming both from the centre of the review and from Government itself.

Just as many education services have gradually been privatised, with key figures moving nimbly from one organisation to another, some keen observers see the same pattern developing in the care sector. This has led to the charge of cronyism – and not merely related to Josh MacAlister.

The Department for Education’s chief social worker, Isabelle Trowler, helped design the curriculum of MacAlister’s organisation, Frontline. It has also been directly funded by the department. Trowler formerly worked within Hackney Council with Alan Wood, who is now an advisor to the Government on Innovation Funding Decisions. Wood advocates for the marketisation of all children’s services. Frontline’s chair is Camilla Cavendish, a former David Cameron advisor. 

Trowler set up an organisation called Morning Lane Associates with Steve Goodman, her former line manager at Hackney Council. The company had contracts to deliver children’s social care reforms but was dissolved in 2019.

Joe Hanley, a social worker and lecturer in social work at the Open University, has used what is called network ethnography to map networks involved in policy development in social work in England. The work built on previous research by other academics, including Professor Ray Jones. He found that the level of connections within the network was substantial.

Hanley told Byline Times that he started putting the analysis together when MacAlister was appointed, questioning why he had effectively been given the job of Social Work Tsar after only a couple of years in the sector.

“I am not suggesting there is anything nefarious about the network,” he said. “But I do think that when you visualise this publicly available information, it is very clear that it is the same people working in central Government and in the private sector who are included in conversations. MacAlister is meeting the same people over and over again, which will convince him that there is a consensus that agrees with his ideology.”

Hanley’s mapping tools shows the connections between private interests, the Care Review, Frontline and the Department for Education

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “Josh MacAlister was chosen because he will bring innovative ideas to the work to fundamentally reform children’s social care and will provide evidence from a wide range of individuals and groups with experience of the system for where change is needed.”

They added that MacAlister had permanently stepped down from Frontline “to ensure he is able to act independently… the Government awards contracts following fair and open competition, with clear standards regarding declaring any conflict of interest”.

When asked about concerns around the network of close advisors and specialists who know each other and are well connected in Government, they said: “It is also not unusual for experts in a particular field or sector to know one another.”

Carolyne Willow, director of Article 39, has also raised concerns about the independence of the review, given the closeness of MacAlister to the Government in the past. She referenced his former organisation’s reliance on substantial Government funding and his leading role in co-writing the so-called Blueprint for Social Care in 2019, which was interpreted by many as a move towards removing children’s social care from local authorities. 

Saving Money by Removing Safeguards

Jane Collins – who runs a not-for-profit fostering agency, Foster Support, in West Yorkshire – calls the Care Review “murky” and has deep concerns about its end game, which she believes is moving towards a more deregulated model. She points to moves to reduce the foster care assessment period to just three weeks, arguing that the length of the assessment is there to protect vulnerable children and the carers themselves. 

“At the centre of this should be children in need of support,” Collins said. “They should be at the heart of this process, but they are moving children around the country, removing safeguards, shortening assessment times; their needs are not being met.”

Collins believes that the Government is tiring of vast amounts being spent on the care system as more children enter it and suspects that it is pushing for adoption and kinship care as cheaper options. “They are creating a massive mess because of austerity, they have taken away the support centres and then, instead of owning that mess they want to cut safeguarding, take fewer children into care.

“This is a system where there is no money left, everything is stripped bare and people are fighting for scraps. They just want to get costs down and the Care Review is about getting the ducks in the row to do that.”

Caroline Bald, a lecturer in social work at Essex University thinks likewise. She wants to see a care system where “children are at its centre, family in all its forms. We need to see a commitment to lifelong corporate parenting”. The Care Review suggests, she fears, a different, time-limited, corporatised direction of travel instead.

Ray Jones has grave concerns that “the conclusion of the review will be that the market is not working well enough, rather than the argument that having a commercial market is not a sensible idea. The review will suggest making the market more efficient rather than saying it is not the right model”.

Ian Gould eventually found a family in the south of England who supported him. That’s what he wants for the sector – to leave no child behind, even as they grow into young adults.

“I left care when I was 15, and all I had wanted during those years was to be loved unconditionally,” he said. “That didn’t happen until I was 21. Children in care… may not come out of their trauma until their mid-20s, so we cannot have a system of care that ends at 16. That’s shameful and very ugly.”

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