There was a horrible discussion about child sexual exploitation on Newsnight last night (3/7/12). The Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, claimed that there is no other way to manage children’s homes than through privately managed services, but that the local authority is nevertheless to blame for poor quality service for not managing them properly.
To me this is something of a paradox. Whilst the local authorities remain responsible for dishing out the cash to fund outsourced services, they are also asked to do so on as cheap a budget as possible. One of the main ways this is done is through cheapening labour. Workers in the employ of local authorities are usually much better organised (and therefore inevitably more costly to the employer) than in outsourced providers, so it is pay, conditions, that sort of thing that disappears when services are run in this way.
When services like this are privately outsourced by councils (see also women’s refuges, drugs services, elderly care, mental health provision etc) companies tender for the contract from the council. The one who can do it on the tightest budget usually win, which inevitably means worse service. I hate the phrase ‘you pay peanuts, you get monkeys’, because it’s insulting to social care workers who work so hard, but you can’t expect to pay people minimum wage, train them insufficiently, make them work ridiculous hours with shoddy facilities and expect an excellent service. Recognising and acting on safeguarding concerns takes training and time that many workers just can’t provide.
Loughton’s argument was that local authorities should be improving quality of care for children by moving them to safe neighbourhoods. Safe usually means wealthier, and therefore the care providers will not provide services in these areas because the properties are too expensive. Let’s face it, a care company tendering for a contract based on a new children’s home in Kensington and Chelsea, the poshest parts of Surrey, or Tatton in Cheshire is not going to win as it is not as cost effective as one with homes in somewhere like Tower Hamlets, East Hull or any number of other poor boroughs.
Market competition shouldn’t be a factor in care of vulnerable people, and this show had damning proof that 1 in 5 children who are sexually exploited are in care. That’s hugely disproportionate to the number of children in care nationwide!
When competition to provide the cheapest service is a factor, quality will suffer. The idea that you can have both is illogical. In more generalised terms we have seen this happen with the public transport systems since they have been fully privatised. While neo-liberal logic dictates that competition drives prices down and quality up in order to win out, in fact quality can never go up while costs go down. Stressed, overworked, underpaid staff are more likely to make mistakes and care less about their work. The cost of firing, rehiring and training far outweighs that of providing a reason to keep employees in this type of work.
Loughton is right about one thing – in order for child exploitation to decrease, we must improve the quality of service. But that cannot be done while services are being cut, squeezed and privatised. When you work in social care it is often said that service users come first, and that staff must take the hit of budget cuts. Of course we care about our service users, but there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding that cuts to staff costs will have a knock on effect on the client group anyway.