In January, the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, announced that Josh MacAlister would lead a once-in-a-generation review of children’s social care. The Minister said, “This review will be bold, wide-ranging and will not shy away from exposing problems where they exist”. The Department for Education’s media release described this as an independent review.
The indications as the work starts do not inspire confidence and point to this being anything but an independent review.
Yesterday (16 March), the government published a link to a contract signed by Josh MacAlister and the Department for Education, on 24 February 2021, which contains numerous redactions including the whole of Schedule 1, which sets out the work. However, a version of the contract without such redactions is published online elsewhere. It shows:
- That any recommendations which require additional central government funding must be offset by savings elsewhere. The contract requires that, “Recommendations must be affordable to [Her Majesty’s Government]. DfE cannot assume any additional funding from the Exchequer to meet the recommendations… For any recommendations that require new funding (including transition funding), DfE must include as robust and detailed an evidence base as possible to demonstrate how, and over what time period, this would be offset by savings across national and/or local public services (including LG CSC need to spend). DfE will need to work with other departments to ensure projected savings are realised within the specified time period, for any recommendations [Her Majesty’s Government] adopts” [Emphasis added].
- The scope of the review is much wider than the published terms of reference. The contract states, “the review will consider the contribution and impact of the family court and legal process on the experiences and outcomes of the child”. There is no mention of the family court and the legal process in the document published on the review’s website.
- Josh MacAlister has been told what kind of skills must be included on the review’s supporting panel. This does not include personal experience of receiving children’s social care services, or professional experience of directly providing a children’s social care service. Two organisations are named in the contract – the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care and Social Finance. The contract states: “The supporting panel must include the following skill sets: financial background and experience in cost control; local government delivery experience; representatives from the What Works Centre and Social Finance. The Chief [sic] will approve the final list of panel members before they are announced” [Emphasis added].
The What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care was commissioned by the Department for Education (announced in 2016) and registered as a company in 2019. It is one of a growing number of What Works Centres which are funded by central government and non-government sources (full list here). Social Finance is a not-for-profit organisation starting in 2007. Its website states., “Our innovations, including the Social Impact Bond model, have mobilised more than £500 million globally. We have sister organisations in the US, Israel, the Netherlands and India and a network of partners across the world”.
- When it comes to knowledge and skills relating to the family courts and the law, the contract simply requires that consideration be given to appointing representatives with relevant experience: “Consideration is given to appointing a judicial representative of the family courts to the expert panel supporting the review, and a legal practitioner with expertise in care proceedings”.
- Similarly, the contract signposts the importance of involving children and young people from an existing Ministry of Justice advisory group, together with those in contact with the youth justice system, though there is no requirement for this expertise to be represented on the expert panel. The contract states: “Family Justice Young People’s Board is identified to the review’s expert panel as an important group to involve from the earliest stage and that early consideration is given to how the review will engage with children in the youth justice system”.
- Civil servants from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government must be involved throughout the review, the contract states: “MHCLG officials must be involved throughout the review to support the modelling of any direct and indirect costs of potential recommendations to LAs. Before any recommendations are implemented, DfE would need to agree them and their funding mechanism with MHCLG and [Her Majesty’s Treasury], noting the [cost-saving] parameters above”.
- In carrying out his contract, Josh MacAlister must not embarrass or diminish public trust in the Department for Education. His contract states: “In performing his obligations under the Contract the Contractor shall conduct his business, operations and activities in a manner which (i) shall not embarrass the Department or (ii) bring the Department into disrepute by engaging in any act or omission in relation to this Contract which is reasonably likely to diminish the trust that the public places in the Department”.
- Early findings from the review are to be shared “internally” with government to inform the Department for Education’s submission to the Treasury as part of the next Spending Review. The contract states: “Early findings from the review, to be shared with the Department for Education to inform the department’s bid at the next Spending Review. This will be internal to government, with timings dependent on the timing of the Spending Review”.
- Although Josh MacAlister had to stand down from his role as Chief Executive of Frontline, the contract permits him to receive financial or non-financial benefits from Frontline during the period of the review/contract so long as this is “expressly agreed by the Department”. The contract states: “To avoid any conflict of interest arising from the Contractor’s current employment at Frontline, the Contractor has agreed to resign from their current post before taking up the role. The Contractor warrants that he will not receive any pecuniary or non- pecuniary benefit from Frontline during the term of this Contract save as expressly agreed by the Department. Upon expiry of this Contract, with the prior written consent of the Department, the Contractor may recommence his employment with Frontline on condition that he shall not carry out any Lobbying for a period of 6 months after expiry of this Contract” [Emphasis added].
The work is to be completed by 31 March 2022 “unless otherwise agreed in advance with the Secretary of State for Education, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Prime Minister”. Josh MacAlister is to be paid £141,329 for the 12-month contract, which can be found here.
Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:
“Despite the review being billed as a once-in-a-generation process, which is to be radical and bold, we can now see its chair is tied into a legal contract which says there is no new funding for children’s social care. Any extra resources for children and families which may come out of this review have to offset by savings from other public services, which are already on their knees.
“The scope of the review is much wider than previously described and is to take in the family court, legal issues and children’s experiences of the youth justice system. Yet still it must work at breakneck speed and there is no requirement to give positions of influence to those with direct, personal experience of children’s social care services. The contract is silent on how the recently recruited Experts by Experience Board connects to the expert or supporting panel, and who besides the review’s chair and civil servants will be involved in analysing evidence and drafting recommendations.
“Hopes have been raised all over the country that this review will bring about huge changes in children’s social care, with the views and experiences of children and families centre-stage. It is inconceivable that ideas and proposals would not require public funds, just as any once-in-a-generation review of the NHS or education would inevitably point towards additional resources. As for the review’s chair not embarrassing the Department for Education, does this mean he is not allowed to highlight the risks to children of policy decisions which are not in their best interests, such as the Education Secretary’s recent decision to only ban unregulated accommodation for children in care who are aged 15 years and younger?
“Many of us have suspected from the start that the government already knows what it wants to happen from this review, and this contract confirms our worst fears. It’s time for the government to come clean about what it’s planning for children’s social care, and to admit this review is independent in name only”.
Despite our deep reservations about the review, Article 39 will submit evidence and seek to persuade the government to introduce changes to law, policy and practice which uphold the rights of children (and their families) in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and other international treaties. We take strength and motivation from developments in Scotland, where they not only had a comprehensive review of the care system, a process which took three years, they have also now passed legislation which makes the UNCRC part of Scots law.
The children’s social care review was launched on 15 January 2021, and Josh MacAlister started work full-time on it on 1 March 2021. Despite the review’s website claiming that the Conservative Party’s 2019 general election manifesto “committed to review the children’s social care system”, the document actually promised a review of the care system (page 14).
Last month, Article 39 co-ordinated a letter to the Secretary of State for Education, with around 300 signatories, which raised concerns over the independence of the Chair, the review’s time period and its very wide scope (before we knew that the family court and legal matters were explicitly part of the review). The joint letter asked the government to agree that any proposals for reform of the Children Act 1989, coming from this process, would be passed to the Law Commission. It further asked for an independent panel to be appointed following open recruitment. The response from the Children’s Minister failed to answer our specific concerns and requests (the correspondence can be found here).