A series of developments inside the social care sector suggests a worrying trend to keep children in state care, and maximise lucrative fostering and adoption placements.
As child poverty in England continues to sky-rocket, it’s likely that more children will find themselves inside the social care sector through no fault of their own. Families struggling to feed and clothe their children will become even more vulnerable to government intervention, and with state care already buckling under the pressure of looked after children – care applications rose by 8% in February this year, signalling the second highest monthly total for a February on record – the government is clearly looking to find ways to shift the burden off the state and, perhaps, make a profit from the trade.
There is already a growing trend to sell adoption and fostering as preferred alternatives to keeping families together where possible, despite momentum building inside the sector for family focused support services. A review of the state of foster care in England produced in February of this year by Martin Narey, dubbed the adoption tsar, and Mark Owers, tried unsuccessfully to paint a rosy picture of the fostering sector, despite the data, which shows quite clearly that outcomes for fostered children are still unacceptably poor, remaining unchanged.
Social Work England, the government’s new regulatory body which is set to replace the Health and Care Professions Council, has also caused concern amongst social work professionals, who believe that SWE will reduce the sector’s independence and effectively hand over complete control of the sector to the government.
SWE is currently being managed by a charity called Nesta, which claims to work with partners and national governments all over the world to tackle what they call big challenges. And whilst their efforts are admirable, none of the success stories featured on their website represent large-scale challenges or extensive experience working within the social care sector, although it claims to have worked with over 40 governments ‘at every level’. The charity, which is based in Victoria, a stone’s throw from Whitehall, is being led by several current and former civil servants, and entrepreneurs with blue chip backgrounds in venture capital law, corporate finance and fund management.
Whilst the executive team at Nesta is not in itself questionable, it is the board of Trustees which looks odd at first glance. Most charities tend to list their people in order of seniority, with the Chair and Trustees on the front page of the Who We Are section, or its equivalent. Nesta, though, has chosen to order its staff alphabetically and has tucked its Chair away, at the end of a page.
Nesta’s controversial Chair, Sir John Gieve, is listed at the very bottom of the Trustees list, and unlike the rest of the Nesta team who are all filed under the initial of their first name, John can be found under ‘S’ for Sir. Forget to scroll, and you might miss him. Perhaps that was Nesta’s intention.
Gieve, whose disastrous careers at the Home Office and the Bank of England led to his departure from both the government body and the financial institution, seems like a high risk choice to run a managing body. Gieve was pressed to resign from his position as permanent secretary at the Home Office after a National Audit Office review of its accounts for 2004-05 revealed errors so wild that they beggared belief, an incident which followed the lost prisoner scandal, in which it emerged that more than 1,000 prisoners had been released from British prisons without being considered for deportation, under Gieve’s watch. Gieve was also forced to resign as deputy governor of the Bank Of England, after the Northern Rock scandal. The committee’s chairman at the time, John McFall, accused Gieve of being “asleep in the back shop while there was a mugging out front.”
Another Trustee and career civil servant, Moira Wallace, was also subject to calls to resign from her post as Provost of Oriel College, in 2016, after questions were raised over her leadership abilities. Wallace was embroiled in another controversial clash in 2013 with the then energy secretary Ed Davey, which led to her leaving her previous job as permanent secretary at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but not without receiving what was widely thought to be the biggest ever Whitehall severance package at the time.
Several more trustees have extensive experience working in private equity, a background which lends itself perfectly to the privatisation of services, including those offered within the social care system.
The credentials, and professional histories of Nesta’s trustees are enough to cause a stir inside the social care sector, already deeply sensitive to mismanagement, and privatisation. But privatisation creep inside the system is not new and continues on, largely unopposed.
In 2014, the government was already pressing ahead with the marketisation and privatisation of children’s social services. A strong public backlash followed, which forced the government to issue a revised regulation. Crucially, the revision did not stop private sector companies from getting contracts to provide children’s social care services. Instead, it simply required the companies to set up not-for-profit subsidiaries to provide the services – a little like Nesta is doing for Social Work England.
Research produced in 2015 by Corporate Watch revealed that eight commercial fostering agencies made around £41m profit between them from providing foster placements to local authorities. Fostering and adoption agencies are big business, and with the promise of profits like these, the sector seems ripe for full-scale commercialisation. If privatisation was good for vulnerable children it could be forgiven, but the emerging data does not show any visible difference in outcomes for children who experience commercial placements. In fact, an expose by ITV in December of last year confirms the worst – whilst children in care are given the bare minimum under these kinds of arrangements, private companies are siphoning off the majority of the funds.
And when children’s care homes fail, private equity firms then make millions from their demise.
Despite the Department for Education’s updates on developments inside the sector, little seems to be known about the recruitment processes for positions within bodies like Social Work England, Cafcass and the Independent Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel. Is the Department for Education really being transparent about its agenda, or is a picture emerging of a government ruthlessly chopping up the social care sector to sell it for parts?