Yesterday saw the publication of the final report from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) market study into children’s social care.
The use of the word ‘market’ itself is jarring and troublesome. We should use it begrudgingly. It’s one indication of just how far removed the care system has come from children and the people who want to care for them.
The CMA, as our country’s competition regulator, often produces factual, analytical reports. So it’s noteworthy that Andrea Coscelli, the CMAs chief executive, commented on the report in such stark terms:
“The UK has sleepwalked into a dysfunctional children’s social care market. This has left local authorities hamstrung in their efforts to find suitable and affordable placements in children’s homes or foster care.”
We share their analysis of the problem. After a year spent considering children’s social care in England, the report captures some of the consequences of this dysfunction for children that I have seen and heard myself, time and again.
The CMA study identifies many of the same system problems that I have seen directly impact the lives of children. Children being moved far from their community and the people who love them. Children being matched with carers or homes that are not right for what they need. Children being bounced around from carer to carer.
Further to the direct impact on children, is the concern that money is being drained out of a system that is struggling to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of families. This is why the problems of the children’s social care ‘market’ are systemic to the whole of children’s social care.
And that is why the review is considering these issues from all angles. Earlier in the week the What Works for Children’s Social Care published the first in a series of reports commissioned by the review. The report asks are local authorities achieving effective market stewardship for children’s social care services? In short the answer is no.
As a way of helping everyone to plan for the homes children might need in the future, local authorities are required to meet a ‘sufficiency duty’ set out in law. The What Works Centre report shows that almost half (44%) of local authorities have either no publicly available or up-to-date strategy to get enough local homes for looked-after children. In this way and many others, the care ‘market’ is fundamentally broken.
The review is now in the process of developing recommendations that we’ll put to the government when we report in spring. The CMA’s ideas for change, following their thorough and rigorous analysis, are going to be an important contribution to our own thinking. Change is urgently needed but the system is also extremely fragile. Children in care today need local, loving homes and therefore deserve solutions that are going to improve their lives that can run in parallel with more fundamental reforms for the future. Quick fixes won’t be enough. But I am just as cautious of rhetoric that can’t be delivered.
The CMA have issued the latest and what I hope will be the last wake up call. The job of the review now is to work up the comprehensive, ambitious and deliverable plan for the whole of children’s social care.