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Social services: uncertainty remains as separation of commissioning and provision remains option

Social services: uncertainty remains as separation of commissioning and provision remains option

🕔31.Mar 2014

Following publication of the damning Le Grand report into Birmingham’s social services, chief blogger Paul Dale gives his analysis of the study and finds the outlook far from certain. 

The fact that the Le Grand Report into the future of Birmingham’s failing children’s social care did not suggest immediately placing the service in the hands of an independent trust clearly came as a relief to the politicians that have over many years let down young people at risk of serious harm.

An all-party statement issued by the city council claimed that the report by a panel of experts under Le Grand “ends a long period of uncertainty about the future of children’s services in Birmingham”.

It does nothing of the sort. Perhaps they didn’t read the small print, for the admirably short but pithy report makes it clear that removing social care from direct council control very much remains an option open to the Secretary of State.

The Le Grand recommendations, accepted in their entirety by Children’s Minister Edward Timpson, put in place a six-month study by the Department for Education to investigate the possible “splitting of commissioning from provision”. What this means in practice is that the council would no longer ‘run’ children’s social care but would instead award contracts to an independent trust to do so, as is happening in Doncaster.

Imposing such a solution immediately was considered by Le Grand and rejected, not because it wasn’t felt to be a good idea, but largely because of a shortage of capacity within existing organisations in the private or social enterprise sector to take the strain of providing children’s services in a city the size of Birmingham.

But, crucially, Le Grand added: “We do consider that this option has potential in the longer run for helping to resolve Birmingham’s difficulties and we consider it important that the capacity barriers, both in terms of provision and commissioning, to the realisation of this potential be explored in depth by Birmingham, and the DfE than we have been able to do in the time available to us.”

Mr Timpson has authorised such a study, which will be completed by the end of September. In the meantime, Birmingham City Council has six months to show the sort of improvement in children’s social care that it has been singularly unable to demonstrate in the past.

The city’s children’s services will effectively be under the control of a Government-appointed Commissioner, Lord Norman Warner. He will work with the council’s Director for People, Peter Hay, but there can be little doubt as to who the ultimate boss will be – and it won’t be Mr Hay.

Lord Warner, incidentally, sounds like the type of free-thinker likely to liven up social care in Birmingham. A former health minister in Tony Blair’s government, he is the co-author of a report suggesting that everyone in the UK should pay a £10 a month NHS membership fee to stop the health service from “sliding into a decline that threatens its existence”.

It will fall to Warner to oversee recommendations flowing from the Le Grand Report. Naturally, the document has been welcomed by Birmingham city council’s Labour leadership, which had little option but to try to put on a brave face. Strip away the spin, however, and it becomes clear the report is a scathing critique not just of the past, but also of what is happening now.

In particular, the management changes imposed at the top of the organisation by council leader Sir Albert Bore are found to be lacking by Le Grand. The report asks an obvious question: why Birmingham does not have a Director with sole responsibility for children’s services? Mr Hay, the man in charge, has a range of additional responsibilities including adult social care, public health and some aspects of housing. More on his plate than may be thought reasonable.

Le Grand thought there were “severe potential difficulties with this arrangement” because Mr Hay would not be focused exclusively on children’s services. The report concluded the council’s senior management arrangements “present serious difficulties for a service in crisis”.

The killer pay-off from Le Grand occurs near to the end of the report when possible options for the future are considered: “The signs of improvement so far are modest and evidently fragile. Given the history of changes in leadership in Birmingham, the panel is also somewhat sceptical of the ability of any new Director of Children’s Services, whatever their merits, to overcome the historical legacy of such major problems on their own. It also has serious doubts about the longer-term fitness for purpose or sustainability of some of the new managerial arrangements that are currently being put in place.”

And when it comes to the one area of this issue where the council insists improvement has been made – relations between senior management and the social work troops on the ground – Le Grand begs to differ. His panel says it did not see “one plan that coherently and accessibly laid out how the drive for improvement specifically in children’s social care was to be structured, organised and delivered”.

Le Grand continued: “Ironically, we saw evidence to suggest that a critical core service improvement plan may exist to a reasonably well developed state in the heads of some of the senior management, but we found it frustrating that it has not yet been set out clearly as a route map for staff and front-line managers. This is not a bureaucratic nicety but a fundamental requirement.

“Overall, the plans that we have seen are worthy in intent but seem either aspirational in tone and vague in content, or immensely detailed but lacking in strategic overview.”

It is reasonable, I think, to draw two conclusions from the Le Grand Report. The first is that Commissioner Lord Warner will oversee yet another senior and middle management overhaul of Birmingham children’s social care. The second is that the Doncaster option of removing control of children’s services from the council remains very much on the horizon.

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