Social worker power forces partial government u-turn

Proposals to allow local authorities in England to privatise child protection services have been abandoned. But outsourcing remains a threat.

UNISON members in social work responded in their hundreds to the union’s call to action when the government moved to allow privatisation of children’s social work, including child protection.

The Department for Education has now announced that profit-making organisations would be barred from carrying out core child safeguarding duties, although outsourcing remains a threat with councils still being able to bring in charities and not-for-profit firms if they wished.

More than 700 social work staff responded individually to the government consultation, alongside an official response from UNISON. At the same time nearly 72,000 signed petitions opposing the plans.

The decision also follows criticism from experts – including social work academics, professionals and charities – that opening up child protection to the market would distort decision-making and dilute local accountability over sensitive matters such as taking a child into care.

The department revealed that of 1,300 responses to its consultation, held in April and May, just 2 per cent agreed with the proposals. Over half said they objected to the introduction of the profit motive.

This is a major victory against privatisation of one of the most sensitive state functions – but it is only a partial victory.

Concerns remain about outsourcing to non-profit-making organisations – including the dangers of fragmentation of services, the effects of competitive tendering, cost-cutting and under-funding of contracts, and weakening of democratic accountability and oversight.

UNISON will continue to raise these concerns as the government moves to lay draft regulations.

The objections raised by UNISON in our response to the consultation fell under the following headings:

  • There is no evidence to support outsourcing
  • In-house innovation may be restricted
  • Big contractors providing services on the cheap will dominate the market
  • Contracts are too blunt an instrument to manage the complexity of social work
  • There are major risks around fragmentation and a loss of accountability
  • There is the possibility of damaging conflicts of interest
  • The integrity and impartiality of the service are under threat
  • There are better alternatives.

Read the government response to the consultation