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Then our children will be next

Michael Gove’s plan to privatise child protection services is an invitation to profit from the most vulnerable children, warns STEVEN WALKER

LAST week’s revelations that Michael Gove’s Education Department has formally enabled the privatisation of child protection services has rightly sent shock waves around local government trade unionists. 

Social workers are the lead professionals charged with safeguarding vulnerable children. 

They don’t just work for their vocation, on the whole they work from deep convictions about the safety of every child, and from a sense of public service. All that will change if Gove’s plans succeed.

The Health and Social Care Act came into force in April 2013 and set the legal framework for privatising on a bigger scale than ever before within the NHS and social care. 

Almost immediately Richard Branson’s Virgin Care company took over Devon’s integrated children’s services, responsible for some of the most disabled and vulnerable children with physical and learning disabilities. 

Since then Virgin Care has become one of many private companies slowly but surely signing up lucrative contracts up and down the country to run not only local authority, but NHS services as well. 

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported in 2011 that one in seven board members of the first wave of clinical commissioning groups (previously primary care trusts) had a link to a private healthcare company. More than 60 per cent of those with private links were associated with Assura Medical, now Virgin Care.

The work of Ofsted is used as ammunition in the ideological arguments being put forward by those peddling the idea that service improvements and the safety of children can be left to market forces and business ethics. 

Ofsted inspections now include social care as well as schools. Of 50 child protection services inspected by Ofsted in 2012-13 because they had been previously identified as weak, more than a third were judged as still inadequate in terms of their overall effectiveness. 

The real reason for poor provision is the relentless squeeze on budgets, higher demand and low staff morale which leads to high staff turnover and increasing use of expensive agency staff. Many child protection services are running with unfilled vacancies as local government funding is cut.

Ofsted reports are seized upon to name and shame local government social care departments and add to the refrain that staff are feckless, overpaid and poorly managed. 

The solution from the right-wing media is to allow private companies to bring market discipline and business ethics to families with multiple problems. 

There is now a momentum building behind this policy aspiration in the context of financial austerity and cuts to public services where we are persuaded that there is no alternative but privatisation. It is another classic case of deliberately running down a public service to make it ready for a business takeover. 

Worse, there is some heavyweight intellectual support for opening up local government children’s social services to privateers — ironically coming from the London School of Economics, often cited as the place where modern social work was defined during the post-war welfare state political

The LSE’s social care guru, Professor Julian Le Grand, is pushing his plan to improve children’s social care by privatising it and undermining the basic principles of the welfare state. 

Councils in Doncaster, Richmond and Kingston are already experimenting with creating private companies to run social care, while Staffordshire and Bristol have allowed groups of social workers to set up independent practices separate from local authority control. 

Le Grand has been asked by the government to beef-up his earlier recommendations and is expected to report soon. Just in time to use as ammunition against the protests that will now start against the Gove plans. 

The private sector has a woeful track record in these areas of service. The privatisation of young offenders institutions has led to an increase in incidents involving riots, self-harm and suicide. Most inmates come from deprived and disadvantaged backgounds. 

It is another example of where a former public service has been contracted out to big companies such as G4S and Serco, which make millions of pounds in profits while leading to a poorer service and more problems. 

The number of young people who have committed suicide in young offenders institutions over the past 10 years averages three per year. Last year, there were over 3,000 incidents of violence in youth custody establishments and another 1,500 instances of self-harming — far more than before privatisation. 

Vulnerable children are too precious to be left to the ideology and practices of private companies where profits come before people. Gove’s policy must be resisted. Over time he has morphed into the most ideological of Cameron’s ministers, relentless in his attack on public education and an obsessive free marketeer. 

The supreme irony in all this is that he was adopted as a baby and benefited from the care of social workers and adoptive parents who were part of a public service system that put his interests above all other considerations and where money had no part to play. 

His plans will mean other children now in his situation are to have their futures sacrificed on the altar of free enterprise. 


Steven Walker is former principal lecturer in social work, and co-author of Safeguarding Children and Young People: A Guide to Integrated Practice (Russell House Publications).


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