Labour will call for a “privatisation lock” to prevent a potential influx of private providers into council-run child protection services under proposed new powers to enable councils to opt-out of a raft of legal duties relating to the care of vulnerable youngsters.
The move reflects concern over government proposals to allow councils to request exemption from a range of statutory obligations on the grounds that these can inhibit innovative ways of making children’s services more efficient and effective.
Ministers have argued that the wide-ranging measures contained in the children and social work bill will drive up standards, freeing authorities and frontline social workers to experiment with fresh ideas aimed at improving outcomes for at-risk children.
A Whitehall source said: “Too many local authorities are simply not good enough when it comes to child protection. This is about encouraging innovation. It’s not about cutting red tape or cutting corners. If you need to be good, you need to innovate.”
But critics argue the powers pave the way for “academy-style” reforms of social services and threaten children’s social care rights and entitlements carefully built up over recent decades, including the Children Act introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1989.
Labour says that ministers have failed to explain in detail exactly why they need to accumulate such extensive powers through the bill, which will be debated during its second reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday.
The proposed changes would allow ministers to permit the suspension or modification of specific legal social care requirements for a three-year period, with the possibility of a further three-year extension and the option for a permanent exemption if the innovative practices they enable are deemed a success. Both “failing” and “high-achieving” council social services departments can request exemptions.
Although ministers are insistent that their aim is not to introduce for-profit providers into child protection, there is concern that the bill would allow the government to resuscitate earlier failed attempts to open up core child protection functions to the market.
It was forced to back down on proposals outlined in 2014 to allow councils to contract out child protection services after a public outcry. In response they issued regulations preventing contracting out to a profit-making body. However, critics say the new bill would allow this prohibition to be lifted or amended.
Sharon Hodgson, a shadow children and families minister, told the Guardian: “We support innovation to drive improvement. Too many local authorities struggle to provide outstanding children’s services. But we are not convinced that such wide-ranging powers are necessary. We are concerned that the bill could be a Trojan horse for delivering the profit motive into children’s social care.”
A letter in the Guardian signed by 16 social care experts, including university professors and charity leaders, warns that the bill introduces a “fast-track process for the removal of any of hundreds of local authority duties” relating to children and families.
One of the signatories, June Thoburn – emeritus professor of social work and the University of East Anglia – told the Guardian new powers were not needed because existing legislation already allows frontline social workers to innovate. It was not clear why exempting failing authorities from legal duties would improve services, or why already successful councils need more freedom.
She said: “It is hard to escape the conclusion that [the bill] is really about achieving David Cameron’s stated aim of ‘academisation’ for all local authority child and family social care and child protection services.
“But by providing a route for (initially) a few selected local authorities to divest themselves of (unspecified) duties introduced into legislation to help families in distressing circumstances, these proposed clauses open the door to the removal of crucial rights and services from some of our most disadvantaged citizens”.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are committed to making sure every child has the best possible start in life and our bill will help to make this a reality.
“Through our ground-breaking innovation programme, we have successfully empowered local authorities to re-think the way they approach their children’s services – the bill is the next step in this work so they can provide a better service for the families they look after.
“These changes to legislation are time sensitive, meaning we can thoroughly test out and evaluate these new ways of working before we make any lasting legal changes.”
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