Our response to the final report of the Care Review for children's social care in England


Firstly, Children England is very grateful to everyone who put so much time and effort into this hugely important review. It addresses systems and aspects of children’s lives that have been woefully under-appreciated at a national level, and deserves all our attention. 

We’re pleased that the Care Review’s final report is built on an understanding of some of the biggest systemic issues in children’s social care, and clearly tries to address those using positive principles on which to base a new approach. The aspirations of the Review to create the conditions for all children in contact with social care to build good lasting relationships and to feel loved are absolutely right and we very much agree. It’s important that, as the Review recognises elsewhere, such unique and complex aspects of a child’s life are judged not by system-wide indicators but by listening to each child.

As Children England has long commented, central government lacks a vision for children’s wellbeing and children’s services, and should bring all relevant departments together with a strategy for children that has cross-government leadership, puts children’s needs at heart and is resourced by the Treasury according to genuine need rather than predetermined budget constraints. We’re therefore glad that the Review recommends the creation of a National Children’s Social Care Framework "to set the direction and purpose for the system."

We’re particularly glad to see strong recognition that the Children Act 1989 provides the right framework for the services children and families need, with Section 17 enabling areas to respond holistically and flexibly and more children being supported to stay with their family. Related to this, the Review also offers government a useful diagnosis of trends in management and funding that have hampered the implementation of good legislation, namely New Public Management and funding that is patchy, piecemeal and driven by targets that do not and cannot reflect the unique complexity of each child’s needs. We very much hope government will agree that:

"...reform needs to help the system move from a reliance on new public management methods over time, towards a system with greater freedom and responsibility, setting a clear national direction about change but not repeating the mistakes of the past with compliance led processes."

The Review rightly recognises the re-balancing that is needed towards fulfilling the aims of Section 17, and ending the dynamic of rising thresholds and service rationing. We support its vision of Family Help, which if properly funded should return to families the range of help they need to address challenges as they arise.

We welcome the Review’s appreciation that children’s wellbeing depends on a complex ecosystem of support which will look different for every child - it cannot be delivered by one service or professional alone. We would therefore welcome the extension of the corporate parenting principles to statutory services such as primary care and the police, and the proposal to bring schools back into local safeguarding partnerships, and we hope the government will work co-operatively with these sectors on the difficult but important work of becoming genuinely interdependent, with children’s needs at the centre of public service. 

The Review has a similarly holistic view of the individual adults on whom a child might depend for care and wellbeing, and we’re glad to see an appreciation of the role of kinship carers, foster carers and other friends and family who, too often cut off from a child as they enter care or change placement, should be supported to maintain and develop their relationship where the child wants it. Substantive support such as the legal aid, participation in family-led planning and trust to make devolved decisions for the child that the Review proposes will be important in enabling this to happen equitably.

The Care Review makes several recommendations for specific changes that we welcome, especially measures that recognise the needs of young people after 18, including the entitlement to Stay Put or Stay Close to the age of 23 and support for housing from local authorities that better reflects what a parent should offer - namely priority social housing, help to secure a tenancy and ending the idea that they can be 'intentionally' homeless. This is one of many areas where councils will need the right support and investment from central government to empower all departments - not only children’s social care - to see young people in care as 'their' children, to whom they owe care and consideration in all policies.

The right to an independent advocate by default will make a significant difference for children in care, and one which several of our members have campaigned for over many years. We hope that the voluntary sector, crucial in delivering advocacy thus far, will be recognised for the contributions it can make in extending provision, setting high standards and ensuring children’s voices and needs continue to be central in services. Regarding the Review’s preferred option of advocacy services being commissioned by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, we have concerns that a conflict of interest may arise where the Children’s Commissioner is both commissioning children’s charities and performing a critical role as a champion of children themselves, and would hope to see this addressed by any consultation. Like many of our members, we are extremely concerned at the suggestion of removing the IRO role in its entirety, and subsuming these important duties into a mix of advocacy and social work responsibilities. 

Many in the children’s sector have been appalled to see the government divide the care system into real 'care' for children under 16 and lesser accommodation providing only 'support' for 16- and 17-year olds. We at Children England are therefore heartened to see that the Care Review espouses 'care' for all children, up to 18. However, the Review appears to accept that the current system of lighter-touch support for 16- and 17-year olds may be appropriate to continue, and we’re therefore concerned that the new Care Standards it proposes, whilst potentially very strong in setting national protections for children, could instead in attempting to be "flexible enough to enable the best of this type of accommodation" end up very diluted, meaning weaker protections for all children. Before it legislates on any new Standards, we urge the government to consult with children, families and professionals on a robust definition of 'care' that applies to and is realised for all children, wherever they live.

In spite of its narrative on the importance of trust in practitioners, and flexibility in services to shape themselves around each child, there are several measures proposed that could have the opposite effect, drawing power away from local communities and professionals and driving them back to box-ticking measurement that, as the review itself acknowledges, leads to compliance-driven performance management, undue bureaucracy and a detachment from the child’s real experiences. Our concerns include the incorporation of the Supporting Families programme into Family Help, which could bring with it the complex payment-by-results structure at odds with the flexible simplicity of Section 17, and the Review’s stated aims for Family Help. The Review also suggests:

"As part of the National Children’s Social Care Framework, the government should define outcomes, objectives, indicators of success and the most effective models for delivering help. Funding should be conditional on meeting the goals of the Framework."

There is a very real risk that in setting national indicators on which funding is conditional, central government embeds and extends the centralised managerial approaches and perverse incentives of New Public Management right across children’s social care. We are also concerned to see a National Reform Board whose role would be to identify and scrap "unhelpful bureaucracy" that interferes with practice at local level, while being itself (along with several other measures) a brand new layer of centralised bureaucracy. As we and many of our members and sector colleagues have reminded government repeatedly over recent years, much of what gets described as 'burdensome bureaucracy' to social workers and senior managers is in fact an important right that the child has in law, or a safeguard built into regulation, to protect the child from bad practice. Unless new systems have the real, human child and their family at the centre of their functioning, and unless they are committed to learning from our past, our failures and mistakes, they risk simply becoming new manifestations and vehicles for old bad habits, managerialism and command/control.

On the care market, which was the subject of extensive investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the review states that there should be a move away from what the CMA described as 'excessive' profit-making, and recognises that the chaotic patchwork of competitive care marketplaces created by council commissioning and procurement needs reform. Children England agrees. But it’s not clear to us how the proposed Regional Care Co-operatives would be a move in the right direction in pursuing either objective. 

The idea that care commissioning and procurement roles would be removed from councils to become the sole responsibility of Regional Care Co-operatives (RCCs) is confused by the proposal that RCCs would be owned and governed by the same councils from whom commissioning duties had been removed in the first place. The claim that they could procure better, at cheaper prices, simply because they would operate at a wider geographical scale is not evidenced. Moreover the assumption that all the current care budgets in the region could be pooled for more confident, longer term commissioning through the RCC must be challenged by the fact that most councils now 'overspend' on care by the end of each financial year, many having had to do so every year for the last five years. With only their designated care budgets to pool, RCCs would in fact have less, rather than greater, spending power. 

The suggestion of a windfall tax on the profits of the 15 most profitable care companies may appear to be about bringing profiteering under control, as well as sending a clear message that 'excessive' profit-making must be curbed in future. We certainly have questions about the practicability of implementing a selective one-off tax on some, but not all, private care providers, especially those with complex international ownership and investment structures; and we also question why a change in the tax treatment of care businesses should only be especially heavy in one year, but not beyond that point. If it is intended in some way to serve notice that profiteering from care will no longer be allowed here, however, the worry must be that some of the current investors in private care companies will take their investment out altogether, and we risk a wave of Southern Cross-style business closures before any Regional Care Co-operative has been formed, or any other public body is prepared to pick up the pieces.

More fundamentally, Regional Care Co-operatives would be a new market structure, not an alternative to the market itself. "If you are doing the wrong thing, then doing it better makes you wronger, not righter."  (Simon Caulkin). RCCs would condense the number of 'paying customers' in the care market (down to around 20, from 150+) in an attempt to match the consolidated market power of a small number of big, powerful providers. Rather than improving the market, this would intensify a Mexican stand-off between public commissioners and private companies, and hasten the path towards an ever more distorted, and potentially collapsing monopsony market, without addressing the fundamental, structural problem: market competition itself. RCCs would be just as much subject to Public Competition Rules as councils are today, requiring them to put care out to 'fair and open' competition. It is this legal designation of care as a commercial product to be bought and sold transactionally that should be changed, and the Procurement Bill now passing through parliament is the right opportunity to make that change.

Finally, we feel it’s vital to comment on the Review’s proposals for funding. The Review itself calls for £2 billion additional funding for Family Help over five years (ring fenced or otherwise protected from being diverted from that important cause). In total, the Review’s calls for additional public investment in children amount to £2.6 billion over five years. It also makes clear that there must be a medium term commitment to a funding formula that better reflects the commitments in law and in policy to children and families, and that responds to the poverty and inequality that compounds the problems children and families face. We agree with this whole-heartedly in principle, and our proposal for a Children Act Funding Formula offers the detail the Review resists offering on funding to fulfil our shared vision for Section 17 of the Children Act.

When the Select Committee for Housing, Communities and Local Government conducted their important review of funding for children’s services in 2019, they called for immediate additional funding to all councils of at least £3.4 billion to address the chronic and acute damage done by cuts over the preceding decade. Those three years of additional emergency reinvestment, simply to prevent even greater damage to services and communities, never materialised from the government. The funding gap between what councils have and what they need, in order to fulfil all their duties to children and families, has kept growing. £2.6 billion over the next five years - however well-intentioned, and doubtless hard-fought for - still cannot outweigh the continued, systematic withdrawal of public money from children and families, including children in the care system. So we will continue to urge the government, in reading and responding to this review, to accept that £2.6 billion request and at least double it.

It is right that the Care Review makes urgent calls for action as well as outlining longer-term proposals for change. And whilst we welcome the government’s initial acknowledgement of the Review’s significance, we believe children should not have to wait till the end of the year for the government’s full response. As we and many other children’s organisations wrote to the Education Secretary earlier this month, the government should now commit to an ambitious timetable for reform backed by resource from the Treasury and accountable to the children and adults whose lives are affected by the social care system. This will require even braver and more child-centred collaboration than the Care Review has demonstrated, challenging orthodoxies in market economics and public service management. Children England and many others in the children’s sector stand ready to contribute.