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Untested models: The role of private and independent providers in social work

Social work is traditionally seen as delivered by public sector organisations – usually local authorities or the NHS.

Over the last couple of decades independent organisations (many of which are privately owned, for-profit companies) have taken on an increased role in delivering social work services, for example, privately owned fostering agencies. Private organisations have always been involved in providing some social work services – an example might be some children’s homes. However, what is new is the scale of such organisations that can be multi-national corporations with a turnover of billions of pounds a year. Such organisations have also taken on a range of services that social workers rely upon in undertaking their work: homecare is perhaps the classic example, but other examples include Human Resource (HR) services and IT services and software. This shift is particularly obvious in England. A number of local authorities have also placed the provision of Children’s Services (including safeguarding services) into so-called ‘Children’s Trusts’ – legally independent organisations that operate at arms-length from the local authority and direct democratic accountability. Here we describe these as ‘untested models’.

Is this an issue of concern for social work and social workers or should social workers simply focus on the ‘bread and butter’ issues of day-to-day practice?

This is an area that is highly contested. For proponents, the introduction of private companies and independent agencies such as Children’s Trusts allow innovation where the state provision of services has failed. For others, only social work delivered by the public sector is the answer. Often the debate is polarised and entrenched. For perhaps a proportion of social workers, the debate is of no concern, or if it is of concern, it is an issue over which they have no control.

As this paper will show, the issues are complex. However, this is not an issue that social work or social workers can ignore.

This work grew out of a motion passed at the BASW AGM on 26th April, 2017. At the time of writing BASW is consulting on how to respond to this accelerating shift to independent providers: both by the adoption of principles and an action plan. This paper gives the context and relevant information under five headings:

  • The background
  • The legal situation in relation to local authorities
  • Different models of service delivery used by local authorities
  • Understanding independent providers
  • Conclusions

Based on these points the document then proposes a series of practical questions for social workers to ask.