Northants County Council are being told by Government they have to put Children’s social services into a county-wide third party ‘Trust’ ready for the proposed two new local councils to buy their services from it. This is causing a lot of discussion both within the council itself as well as with the public with some worried that this could lead to a private company running social services. There are no current plans at all to do that and the idea is for the trust to be owned by the council itself, but clearly plans are up in the air at the moment and it is hard to be certain what the future will bring, partly because the councils responsible for delivering children’s social care in the future haven’t even been set up yet, as local government is about to be reformed in Northamptonshire.
The only reason you could possibly ever think that using a private company to provide Children’s (or any other) services was a good thing, is if that company could provide better services and do it more cheaply. The Tories tend to have a blind belief in the competition provided by the private sector, and some of them naturally therefore assume that both of these two elements will always be delivered by private companies, but there is a huge difference between selling consumer products and services and providing public services, and even if you put aside the idea that profits can be made (i.e. doing things more efficiently than the public sector so as to leave enough room for a profit), there doesn’t seem to be any evidence at all that private companies can do those two things, with it more often than not being the opposite with quality of service affected. So if you take away the idea of the private sector running children’s services, what is left as the motivation for still having a third party ‘trust’ standing outside the day to day running of the council, even if it is one that is publically owned? One argument put forward time and time again is that the legal restrictions on a trust are are less than those on a council and this would enable the trust for example to access third party funding form charities. NCC’s Children’s annual budget is £400m plus, and it seems like pure fantasy to me to expect any significant extra funding to come in this way. For one thing why would charities or charitable donors give money to what would still be seen as a statutory government service? Highly unlikely I would have thought. The trust model would however also allow services to be sold to other authorities to bring in extra income, so a new trust in Northamptonshire, staffed and run by the same management and with the same culture as the current system which has been failing for years, could sell their services to other councils who believe they would best fulfil their statutory duty to children by ‘buying-in’ Northamptonshire’s expertise. I would say this was more than highly unlikely; it was 100% absolutely impossible! And even if they did , it is unlikely any extra income would be significantly more than the service being sold actually cost, so unlikely to bring in surplus or profit to subsidise Northamptonshire’s own service, and when NCC previously spent years considering a children’s trust under their now discredited Next Generation model, the best example they could find anywhere else was a London Borough who had set up a trust for Children’s Services, albeit on a far smaller scale, and managed to sell some services to a council somewhere in the North-East but that trust was not only not making the savings it was supposed to, it was itself already in financial difficulty! That example was given to councillors in Northamptonshire after years of planning that cost millions of pounds and that was probably as close to a proper business case as we ever got, and so far we have yet to see a thought out and costed case or justification of this new idea.
The other issue about a Trust is accountability. How will councillors and members of the public be able to involve themselves in the day to day decisions of the service and monitor its effectiveness? The answer to that is we don’t yet know, but clearly if you take a service away from direct control of a supposed democratic organisation like a council it is going to be even harder to understand and get details of exactly what’s going on. In Northamptonshire we do already have experience from the council’s previous Next Generation plans to show us how the governance and accountability of other publically owned third-party organisations work. We have LGSS (Local Government Shared Services) which is a separate company wholly owned by Northants CC, Cambridgeshire CC and Milton Keynes Council selling back-office services to the public sector, which after years of concern, and often working without proper and effective oversight, may soon itself effectively be disbanded. The debacle of payments made by councillors from NEA Properties that recently led to an independent investigation that couldn’t find any evidence of wrong doing on the ‘available evidence’ but reported that the inquiry was frustrated by a lack of evidence and failure in record keeping. The truth is when you set up a body outside the direct control of the council you will inevitably take decision making further away from elected members and more importantly further away from the public, and not only that, the required scrutiny and monitoring of results of these decisions becomes far more difficult.
So what is the point of moving to a trust? The truth is I can’t see it, and so far nobody locally I’ve spokn to seems to be able to explain it, and the only reason for it therefore seems to be that central government are forcing it on us simply because it seems easier to them to deliverer the service across one large geographic area in the same way it is now, rather than give the two proposed new councils total control over their own destiny, but this means that that new trust will effectively be operating in very similar ways that NCC currently do. With the same leadership team, the same working practices, the same culture and most importantly the same lack of social workers which is one of the fundamental problems we have locally leading to poorer service and extra expense. Doesn’t this entirely go against the whole idea of splitting the county into two new unitary councils?
Is it not the case that the proposed new unitary solution has less to do with providing better local services and more to do with abolishing the political embarrassment of the current Conservative County Council and isn’t this new ‘rebranding’ of children’s services into a new body also part of that agenda?