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Minister's assurances fail to ease profiteering over children's services fears

The British Association of Social Workers reiterated its concern over Government proposals that could pave the way for the privatisation of children's social care in England at its Annual UK Conference.

Speaking at the event in London, Children’s Minister Edward Timpson told social workers he was “not welded to any particular approach” for reforming children’s social care.

The Minister acknowledged there were fears of privatisation in the sector but insisted he held a “pragmatic view” of reform which was “not about ideology”.

BASW has launched an online petition calling on the Government not to press ahead with proposals to delegate out children's social care functions.

Speaking to delegates, Mr Timpson underlined a commitment to social work based on personal family experience and urged practitioners to submit ideas to improve children’s social work to the Government’s £30 million Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme.

He stressed there was need to change structures to prevent “overwhelmed” and “exhausted” social workers from “looking for a way out” within a few years.

Referring to issues around stress and high caseloads highlighted in an All Party Parliamentary Group report into social work published by BASW last year, Mr Timpson said: “That is why our innovation programme is so important.

“It is our attempt to free you from traditional structures which I believe have held the social work profession back.

“We want to trust you to innovate and to raise standards as we do in other professions such as health and education.

“This isn’t about privatisation. If we wanted to privatise children’s social care departments we already can. I want to see new partnerships with the third sector, the private sector too if they can find a role to play, but driven by you, social workers and councils.

“This isn’t something that is going to be imposed from the top, it is the front line that needs to be in the driving seat helping to design services.”

Mr Timpson said he was “alive to the debate in the sector”, including BASW’s response to the consultation which insists protecting vulnerable children should be the responsibility of the state and highlights the danger of profit-driven provision.

He added: “We will look carefully to take account of concerns raised about profiteering by the private sector but without limiting too far the freedom I want to give you.

“This freedom we are trying to offer to social workers to create new innovative ways of service delivery is an expression of our faith in you.”

 Mr Timpson said he found it “frustrating” that social workers were not given the freedom and flexibility to shape their service delivery in the same way that teachers and doctors can.

He stressed he wanted a “bottom up” approach to developing services, such as the Hackney ‘Reclaiming Social Work’ model rather than a “top down” crisis-led response to reforming children’s social care.

He pledged the Government would help develop the most promising schemes, with a particular focus on rethinking support for adolescence in or on the edge of care and rethinking how children’s social care operates.

Mr Timpson also praised new schemes to train social workers such as Step Up to Social Work and Frontline as an example of successful innovation.

However, responding to Mr Timpson’s speech, BASW’s Chief Executive Bridget Robb said: “It is great the Minister has reinforced his commitment to children based on his own knowledge and experience of children’s needs. It sounds good to open it up to new ideas. But the danger is it is the same ideas coming forward in a different guise.

“All this focus on innovation is very attractive but at a time when we are seeing a serious loss of expertise from the workforce, not everything can be new. We need to value what is already there.”

BASW Chair Fran Fuller added: “I am concerned about the pathway this Government is taking. The Minister emphasised the fact he wants to do what is best for children and acknowledges the expertise of social workers, but the Government aren’t listening to us.

“I also have concerns over the innovation fund because what he is saying is ‘you are not good enough’.”