Children England responds to the report of the Children's Commissioner on the care system

The Children’s Commissioner is absolutely right to raise the scandalous state of the care market for children in care. She brings important focus to the children being failed and placed at risk by the chaos of the procurement marketplace, and the insufficiency of safe, regulated and properly equipped care for the most vulnerable children in the country. If these reports are successful in raising public alarm and political awareness of a situation that has been bad, and worsening, for so many years such public attention is long overdue – and concerted national action could not be more urgently needed.

The Commissioner’s calls for a national body to bring much-need oversight and action is welcome, and something Children England has called for too for many years. There are certainly things that councils can take action on immediately, such as using their capital budgets to create more local public sector provision. However they are unable, as over 150 individual councils, to counteract the power of market forces that are fuelling the growth and dominance of huge private equity cartels - and that requires decisive national action. The fact that care companies can be bought and sold to the highest bidder without any statutory assessment, intervention or approval process on the basis of what’s best for children, leaves commercial deal-making to determine the shape and nature of our care sector. The state holds all of the legal duties towards children who need care, but has insufficient power over the marketplace they created, and now rely on, to look after them. The need for national government action to take back control of the care system has been evident for many, many years.

The Commissioner’s call for the Competition and Markets Authority to conduct an examination of the care market and how pricing is distorted within it echoes similar calls made by the Select Committee for Housing, Communities and Local Government over 18 months ago. While there should be no doubt that the care market is highly dysfunctional, and therefore should be of concern to the CMA on that basis, we do not think the answers to the problems the Commissioner’s reports highlight will be found in more market analysis – plenty of which has been done already. Price distortions, risks of cartels and monopolies developing, and pressures on smaller competitors to enter mergers and acquisitions are all inherent features of a monopsony market. Making it more competitive won’t alter that structural problem. The problem is treating and managing care as a market at all, not how to make it a better one.

That’s why we believe in moving away from competition and market approaches altogether, and have come up with ideas for how to make that systemic move away from competing over, and profiting from, caring for children. Dismantling all the pernicious effects of the marketisation that has taken root in the care system over 30 years can’t be achieved overnight, but it won’t happen at all if we don’t declare a decisive change of direction now. The promised Care Review should build on all the authoritative calls and ideas for significant change over the last decade, especially the reports and voices from care experienced people of all ages, and galvanise focus on how to move away from markets as safely and quickly as possible, rather than continuing to debate whether we can.

By Kathy Evans, Chief Executive of Children England