Robin Sen, lecturer in social worker and steering group member for CRWA, and Alissa, social worker and steering group member for both SWAN and CRWA, discuss what is said – and more importantly what is NOT said – in the Case For Change. We don’t all have time to scour these large documents. Let Alissa and Robin do it for you!
The Care Review Watch Alliance (CRWA) is a loose collective of care experienced people, care professionals and academics. We come from all corners of the community, including social workers, providers and care experienced folk. We all have concerns about how the current ‘once in a generation’ Care Review is being undertaken. This submission reflects a collective view of the Case for Change (CfC).
It is with great regret that we approach this response having to recognise the politically contrived nature of the design and promotion of the MacAlister Care Review. The fact we have a CfC proposed and costings submitted for the spending review only 3 months into the process is incredulous. This timescale meets a Tory Government deadline for the Review to complete in a year. The timescale has been set to take advantage of the government’s current Parliamentary majority with a view to implementing legislative change, regardless of Parliamentary opposition. This timetable therefore reflects the political needs of the ruling Tory government, rather than being grounded in a desire to undertake a thorough review, or to seek consensus across the political and children’s social care spectrum as to how to better meet the needs of children and families. Mr MacAlister presents the public with a narrative about investment and the need for children to have lifelong relationships which provide love, care and security. However, he has failed to challenge the government’s decision to deny the right to care to young people in care who are over the age of 15. Concerns are such that Article 39, a small children’s rights charity has had to launch legal action to try to ensure 16 and 17 year olds are not denied care.
That the CfC’s arguments are often poorly evidenced is a matter of deep concern. As an alliance we focus our response here on three broad but interrelated issues: statutory provision; children’s rights and the regulatory framework for children’s services; and the role of austerity and poverty.
A lack of understanding of statutory provision for families
The CfC framing of ‘statutory’ and ‘non-statutory’ provision wrongly suggests that family support services are provided on a non-statutory basis. This is a stark omission on the part of the CfC which is a deep source of concern. It is unclear if the omission is intended or if Mr MacAlister and his DfE approved team simply fail to understand current legislation. Either way raises questions of concern:
- Why does this Review not include a fundamental endorsement of our substantive piece of legislation, the Children Act 1989?
- How will support for families be comprehensively considered by the Review if the true range of current statutory provision is omitted from its discussion by definition?
Mr MacAlister has made clear he wants to reframe ‘early help’ to ‘family help’ and the CfC asserts a need to define what ‘family help’ is. We direct Mr MacAlister to the Children Act 1989: Schedule 2 details the provision of services for families. Additionally, Mr MacAlister and the DfE might need to be reminded that Section 17 of the 1989 Act is ‘statutory’ as it places an accountable duty on Local Authorities to provide family support services, as needed, both for children who may be suffering significant harm or impairment (Section 17. (10, b) and Section 47) and for those who need additional (social work-led) services to provide them with ‘the opportunity of achieving or maintaining a reasonable standard of health or development’ (Section 17 (10 (a)).
As Emeritus Professor June Thoburn writes in respect of the Children Act, 1989:
The intention of the originators of the legislation (fully discussed with ministers and in Parliamentary debates on the that Bill) is clearly stated: ‘It would not be acceptable for an authority to exclude any of these three [those children in need of additional services; those in need of protection; and disabled children, as defined in Section 17]….by confining services to children at risk of significant harm’ (The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations Volume 2 1991 para 2.4). Mechanistic ‘thresholds’ and ‘step up’ ‘step down’ processes that result in local authorities making de-facto decisions to restrict and ration services are contrary to the intention of the Act and are the result, as Directors of Children’s Services over the years have made clear, of the need to ‘ration’ services in response to inadequate funding.
Children’s rights and the regulatory framework
The CfC overlooks the existence of children’s and families’ rights to expect their Local Authorities to provide them with services, when they are in need. However, on page 81 the CfC reports “What is needed is a coherent regulatory landscape and rulebook which is grounded in the needs – and indeed rights – of children and families…..”. There is already a regulatory landscape, as we have described above. Notably, the CfC does not explain what its proposed ‘rulebook’ is, and this is its only mention in the report. However, the CfC does run on its above sentence by adding an ideological claim: “…and combines greater levels of both freedom and responsibility for professionals in children’s social care.”
There is an inherent tension, and a complex relationship, between freedom and rights (Demenchonok, 2009; Huntington & Scott, 2020; Marshall, 2009) and the way in which the (un)regulated provision of childcare constructs and harbours multiple vulnerabilities (Goodall et al., 2021). This complexity is not interrogated within the CfC. Instead, the CfC makes seven references to the word freedom – and concludes with the question – “How can monitoring and inspection make the most difference to children’s and families’ experiences and engender greater freedom and responsibility in the workforce?” (CfC, p.82). There are further references to workers’ freedoms on page 77 and a reliance on Whittaker & Harvard (2016) regarding the concept of defensive social work practice, to sculpt the CfC narrative. Without critical analysis the CfC focuses on developing a narrative that regulation limits the application of professional judgement and fails, for example, to empower the voice of the child. The view consistently visible within the CfC is that government oversight is limiting and oppressive, rather than facilitating social workers to support and safeguard.
We query this reading of the operation of the current regulatory framework. Children who are in the care of their local authority should have a right to receive care, although numerous examples of the state failing to address the needs and rights of children are in evidence (Limb, 2015; Ritchie, 2000). Indeed the CfC reports in respect of that currently unregulated accommodation that: “…. there will no longer be unregulated accommodation and so that the quality can improve.” (p.63), thereby suggesting an awareness that greater regulation is sometimes needed to ensure the rights of children and young people are met. However, it then goes on to support the new government legislation omitting the right to care for 16 and 17 year old young people who are in state care, from September 2021. This failure is entirely inconsistent with the CfC’s claims elsewhere that the state is not a ‘pushy enough parent’. If the care received by children is not consistently at the heart of the CfC, it is difficult to perceive the Review as a means by which the rights of children, and their best interests, will be promoted.
The UK record on children’s rights has been a concern for some time. Haydon and Scraton (2009) interrogated these concerns, which will arguably have worsened following the effects of a decade of austerity. In an attempt to start addressing these concerns, it is notable that the Scottish Government has introduced legislation to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law, and have also banned the smacking of children. Meanwhile, the UK Government has failed to follow suit in respect of England. This is particularly true for asylum seeking and migrant children and young people who are over represented in the unregulated sector and frequently subjected to years of uncertainty over their immigration status. In 2011 Sellick explored the UK expansion into private provision of foster care despite an absence of research upon which to base this significant policy shift and the lack of regard given to the lessons which could be seen from the privatisation of adult social care a decade earlier (Scourfield, 2007). Sellick (2011) asserts state policies are developed on an unevidenced belief which does not stand up to research scrutiny. There is no good outcome for our children when the greed of those who seek profit and power takes precedence over the needs of children.
System factors: the role of austerity and poverty
The CfC is silent on the 30 per cent austerity cuts to Local Authority funding the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition put forward in 2010, alongside savage welfare retrenchment (Churchill, 2013). It is due to reductions in children’s service spending at the start of the last decade that overall spending has still not recovered to 2010 levels, despite increases in spending in more recent years (Webb and Bywaters, 2018; Williams and Franklin, 2021). The lower levels of spending are despite the growing population of children and young people in England during the last decade. This means that the per child/young person spend has decreased by even more since 2010, and spending per child/young person has decreased the most in the most deprived Local Authorities (Webb and Bywaters, 2018; Williams and Franklin, 2021.) Government policies since 2010 have also contributed to rising numbers of people in England who are in ‘deep poverty’, according to the Social Metrics Commission’s measure, and increases in the numbers of children and families who are living in poverty (Webb and Bywaters, 2018; JRF, 2021). The CfC itself recognises there is a clear relationship between increased poverty and the likelihood of children entering care yet, despite this, the Review Chair has appeared to want to attribute the rise in care numbers to the individual practices of social workers being ‘too quick to wade in’ (Duggan, 2021).
The CfC fails to make a single reference to ‘austerity’ in its 80 plus pages. This is not an accidental omission. The CfC bases its spending comparisons on the baseline year of 2012, and therefore presents a narrative that overall spending has gone up, but been reapportioned away from ‘early help’ (which includes various types of family support, youth services and family centres) to ’higher level’ support (which principally consists of child and family social work support, child protection work and spending related to children in care). Choosing 2012 as the baseline comparison year masks the overall reductions in spending on children’s services there have been since 2010 (Webb and Bywaters, 2018). And, by omitting any reference to austerity, the CfC avoids making any criticism of previous Tory administrations, thereby avoiding consideration of the devastating impacts of Tory austerity policies on poorer families and children’s services provision since 2010.
The CfC’s narrative regarding rising care numbers and child protection numbers seems to be that children’s services somehow became more risk averse, and interventionist, after 2010. In turn, it is argued, this led to more children being placed in care, which meant Local Authorities had to reapportion spending towards higher level support away from early help.
While we would agree that the current system is insufficiently supportive of families, the CfC is here only narrating half the story. The unprecedented 30 per cent central Government cuts to Local Authorities in 2010 were part of an ideologically driven and economically unnecessary austerity drive, led by the Tory party. In this context of savage cuts to their budgets, combined with increased demands on Local Authority services, managers were forced to make hard decisions about what to cut the most, and what to cut the least. In children’s services, they understandably tried to protect ‘higher level’ support but were only able to do so at the expense of ‘early help’ services. According to one estimate early help and youth services have been cut in half from 2010 – 19 (Williams and Franklin, 2021), and other estimates have placed this reduction as being even greater if measured from 2010 to 2016/17 (Kelly, Lee, Sibieta, & Waters, 2018). However, diverting funding away from ‘early help’ resulted in increases in the numbers of children coming into care, leading to greater financial difficulties for Local Authorities given placing a child in care is, by some margin, the most expensive measure within children’s services spending. Substantive parts of the increase in care numbers and child protection numbers are then clearly explicable by the greater poverty families are living in, alongside the decimation of ‘early help’ support. Both of these are the result of Tory Governments’ policies. What is more, if child and family social work practice did become more risk averse during the previous decade, as the CfC suggests, then this must be placed in the context of a lack of resources available with which to support families, alongside starkly uncompromising child protectionist discourse from key players like Michael Gove and Sir Martin Narey.
The current shortcomings in children’s services cannot be understood without placing them in the context of Tory Government policies over the previous decade. Instead of doing so, the Review Chair has sought to attribute responsibility for the consequences of these policy decisions to social workers, social work leaders and local government.
In order that this Review can become what those using the children’s social care system, and those working within it, wish for it to be, we make the following calls based on the CfC itself, and the conduct of the Review to date.
- We reiterate our demand for a review that is truly independent of government, and for the replacement of the current chair with a suitably qualified and independent chair.
- In terms of process, the lived experience of children and families should be placed at the centre of the Care Review process, facilitating genuine consultation with, and participation of, experts by experience, including faithful representation of viewpoints which do not align with the Review chair’s own. A model of genuine co-production should be used, building on the Care Experienced Conference and its findings and recommendations.
- The Care Review should also seek to genuinely involve social workers, the largest professional group working within the children’s social care system in England, including faithful representation of viewpoints which do not align with the Review chair’s own.
- The Review needs to accurately describe, and recognise, the full range of statutory provision within children’s services, demonstrating an understanding that ‘early help’ services are statutory provision. The Review needs to recognise that this range of statutory provision is part of a continuum of support within children’s services and that its recommendations should not seek to open it up to separation, siloing or privatisation.
- Children’s rights should be central to the Review and the Review should not make recommendations which undermine children’s rights, including the rights of migrant and asylum seeking and refugee children and young people and teenagers in the care and care leaving system, treating all equally, regardless of immigration status. The Review should call for the full incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into English law.
- We call on the Review to reverse its support for Government legislation which will remove the right of care for those young people in care who are 16 and 17: in doing so, the Review will be recognising that the Government’s current proposals are a betrayal of the state’s responsibilities to young people in state care.
- The Review should place any analysis of the children’s social care system within the context of Tory austerity cuts since 2010, and the rising levels of poverty over the last decade. It should acknowledge that children’s social care spending in 2019 was still behind 2010 levels, and that central government funding to Local Authorities is drastically insufficient to meet core service requirements, let alone develop services creatively. The Review should not seek to blame practice, practitioners or Local Authorities for these systemic policy failures, and it should recognise current strengths in social work practice.
- The Review should use its position to call on the government to reverse rising levels of child and family poverty in England. The Review should demand that the Government fully reverse funding cuts to children’s services per child/young person, taking account of the growing child population since 2010.
- The Review should also demand the power to include recommendations for new investment in children’s services, without the need to counterbalance any such investment plan with promises of future cost savings in children’s services: our children’s futures are not a balance sheet.
- Finally, we call on the Care Review to make a clear and unequivocal recommendation that the privatisation of adoption, fostering and residential child care services be reversed, independently of any report from the Competition and Markets Authority. This is a matter of core principle and the Review should commit to a vision of children’s social care as a public service with a not-for-profit ethos, informed by values of user participation and democratic accountability.
Care Review Watch Alliance Steering Group,
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