80,000 children need us to pay attention to the government's review of children's social care

Last week Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokes Person (Education) had cause to ask questions of Her Majesty’s Government about the funding provided by the Department of Education to the charity, Frontline. Also, questions were asked about the DfE decision to appoint Mr Josh MacAlister CEO of Frontline, to lead a DfE review of children’s social care. There was also an inquiry as to who was invited to attend the launch of that review. Responses were provided by Baroness Berridge. This seemingly innocuous exchange will go unnoticed by most but there are tens of thousands of children who need us to pay attention.

As members of the public, we have all been concerned about the publicised death of an infant when our child protection procedures have failed. As taxpayers, we help to protect children when we fund the social services which support families, foster parents, and adoptive families. When children cannot be looked after safely within their families, it is right the state should provide alternative care for them. In doing so, we contribute to our collective responsibility to ensure the state is funded to provide parental care for these children.

The provision of resources for families who experience difficulties has never been adequate but following a decade of austerity, a UN special rapporteur found poverty in the UK to be ‘systematic’ and ‘tragic’. The defunding of our public services is taking its toll and evidence shows families experiencing poverty will continue to struggle. In 2015, I suggested the need for a ‘red alert’ to announce the impending doom of government policies but no alarm was heeded. Since 2011, the number of children in England who are in the care of the state rose from 65,520 to 80,000 by March 2020. However, rather than limiting its austerity drive, the government made further cuts to local authority budgets including £1.7billion in early intervention provision.

While local authorities raise concerns about an overall £5bn shortfall, private equity firms that use children’s social care provision as an investment opportunity have seen profits rise. A review in 2016 reports privatised foster care was 92% more expensive than that provided by a local authority. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of privately financed children’s homes continued to grow, with 190 new homes opening in that time. Investors are reportedly pocketing millions of profit from the taxes our local authorities could have used to care for our most vulnerable children.

Often children who live in residential care settings can have additional needs and some young people will thrive in specialist provision. However, there is a difference between a specialist facility to enhance good local authority resources and a wholesale change move to a model of care founded on a government-supported investment portfolio. In response, local authorities are beginning to reassert their responsibility to provide residential care for children within their communities. However, they are trying to achieve this amid incessant budget cuts and payment of huge profits to private providers. This has led councils to raise concerns about the excessive profits demanded by private equity partners. The Local Government Association (LGA) found the six largest of these care companies made profits of £216m last year, alone.

Local authorities understand the risks of privatised care following the 2011 failure of the Southern Cross adult social care provider whose financial collapse disrupted thousands of older people. To experience a similar collapse of private provision, especially with their depleted resources would be a travesty for some of our most vulnerable children and young people. In 2018, a care review recommended the government make up the then £2billion funding shortfall requested by the LGA and to ring-fence funds to allow local authorities to develop community provision to prevent children from coming into care.

The government responded with the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson launching a ‘wide-ranging’ review of children’s social care. This move has already raised concerns about previous attempts of this government to further privatise children’s social care including child protection. As we know from Lord Watson’s questions last week, Williamson selected Frontline CEO, Josh MacAlister to lead the review. This appears to have occurred in the absence of any apparent transparent recruitment and selection process.  MacAlister’s lack of independence and relative expertise raised deep concerns from 27 organisations and over 100 individuals.

The question of independence arises in part due to the considerable funds MacAlister’s charity has received. In 2019, Frontline was awarded an extra £45million to extend its provision; although a delayed evaluation report showed the number of graduates leaving their original employer was very high. Additionally, MacAlister authored a Blueprint for children’s social care, which was designed with contributions from individuals and consultant organisations involved with Frontline. Perhaps, unsurprisingly for social entrepreneurs who have benefitted from millions in public funds, their blueprint pays little heed to the impact of austerity and instead focuses on the need to deregulate oversight of social care provision.

It is difficult not to sound alarmist when one is significantly alarmed. We are stood on the beach, the privatised social care takeover tectonic plates have moved over the last decade, enabled by conservative policies. Our choice now, is do we stand and wait for the tsunami to crash, or is there time for evasive action?