While the media harps on about Labour MPs calling for John McDonnell to stand down, the Tories have quietly dropped a privatisation bombshell. And this time, it’s on some of the most crucial services for vulnerable children in England.
A proposed law would see child social care and protection services opened up for private companies to run. It would also allow over 80 years of child protection law to be swept aside, in what critics are calling a “bonfire” of children’s rights. And the bill could threaten to put already vulnerable and abused children at even greater risk.
“New approaches” or a “postcode lottery” for children?
The child and social work bill, which is currently being debated in the House of Lords, intends to shake up the legal basis of child services. Currently, laws apply to every child in the country, via local authorities. But the Tories want to change this, by allowing councils to opt out from national law for up to six years. Ultimately, this means social care laws will no longer apply to all children.
The bill affects nearly all local authority-run children’s social care services. These include child protection, fostering and adoption, family support, the care system and support for care leavers, and services for disabled children. Children and Families Minister Edward Timpson said that local authorities opting out of national law would:
Allow great social workers to try out new approaches and be freed from limiting bureaucracy. All in the interests of achieving more for children.
Critics disagree, and have expressed far-reaching concerns, saying that it will mean a “postcode lottery” of children’s services. Carolyne Willow, a former child protection social worker, said it would lead to the “fragmentation of child welfare law for the first time” ever. The bill would mean “children in neighbouring towns and cities will have different rights”, Willow said; adding that “siblings placed apart could be subject to different legal protection”.
But crucially, because local authorities would be excluded from national law, it would allow them to bring in private companies to run children’s services. While ministers deny this, the exact same thing is happening in the education system: ‘academisation’.
First, they came for the schools
In 2002, local authorities were given the right to opt out of national law in education. These legal exemptions paved the way for the Academies Act 2010, which allowed all schools to opt out of local council control. Conservative ministers had planned to make all schools academies by 2022, but this legislation was dropped in May 2016.
It is these legal exemptions in child social care services that critics say could pave the way for privatisation. Crucially, the government has stated that for these services:
Our ambition is that, by 2020, over a third of all current local authorities will either be delivering their children’s services through a new model or be actively working towards a different model.
By “different model”, the Tories mean ‘not-for-profit’ or private companies. Just as legal exemptions paved the way for academies in education, critics fear the same in children’s care and protection. Some councils are already outsourcing services to companies run by other local authorities. Others have been forced by the government to hand over services to ‘not-for-profit’ trusts, and the management of children’s data nationally is already done by a private company.
But when you look at who is behind the bill, possible privatisation is of little surprise.
It’s a Tory plan. Follow the money
The bill has been brought by Lord Nash, a Conservative peer who is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education. A major Tory donor, he was made a Lord in 2013 and immediately appointed to the Department for Education. But Nash’s involvement in education doesn’t end there; he is also a director of an academies trust.
‘Future Academies‘ was set up by Nash in 2008, off the back of his ‘Future‘ charity project. While the company is supposed to be a not-for-profit organisation, a separate profit-making company named ‘Future Academies Trading Ltd‘ exists. And another director of Future Academies, David Johnston, is also on the Tories’ Social Mobility Commission. He sits with Alan Milburn, Labour’s Health Secretary under Tony Blair. Milburn has been criticised for making money from private healthcare companies, and has called for “competition” in the NHS and social care since leaving parliament in 2010.
Most notably, Milburn sits as Chairman of Bridgepoint Capital’s advisory board, the company which owns NHS private contractor Care UK. It operates the country’s largest in-patient clinic for children with eating disorders, Rhodes Farm. And the previous Chair of Care UK was Lord Nash himself, a man who is also involved in child social services.
Nash’s Future charity has donated in the past to organisations such as Place2Be, which runs counselling services in partnership with schools and has been given £600,000 in government grants. It has also supported Chance UK, an intervention service for children with challenging behaviour. The charity gets half its funding from local authorities, which pay £5,000 per child referred.
Child welfare has a price
As we’ve seen from the Tories with education, it would appear that the welfare of children also has a price. Many children’s services are already outsourced to not-for-profit organisations, and local authorities are struggling to cope with austerity and increased demand. And what this legislation appears to be doing is opening up the door for under-resourced and overstretched services to be taken over by private companies.
But it’s the risk to vulnerable children that is of the greatest concern to many. A social worker of 12 years, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Canary:
We know that potential abusers will exploit weaknesses in a system. As the national Child Sexual Abuse [CSA] Inquiry goes from failure to farce, removing safeguards put in place as the result of learning from previous mistakes is a callous and dangerous act. But it’s about money; austerity. While children, who have already suffered abuse, are abused twice over by the system meant to protect them.
The proposed legislation is being debated in the House of Lords on 18 October. It will then pass to the Commons to be put into law. But if it goes through, thousands of children may see their support handed over to private companies. At a time when child poverty is spiralling out of control, the Tories (with the most right wing cabinet for decades) seem to care little for the wellbeing of children in the UK.
– If you or someone you know need to talk, call Childline on 0800 1111.
– If it is a medical emergency, or someone’s life is at risk, dial 999.
– Support YoungMinds, the voice for young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
– Volunteer with Childline.
Featured image via Screengrab