Kris O’Sullivan, Birmingham North Socialist Party member and care leaver
In March, a “once-in-a-generation” review of the children’s social care sector was published. The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care was commissioned by Boris Johnson’s government in the wake of the tragic killings of toddlers Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson in 2020. Both murders put a national spotlight on the utter inadequacies and shortfalls in our broken social care system that is meant to protect the most vulnerable and at-risk children.
A year in the making, the review provides a wealth of statistics, figures, and projection models that are useful for anyone trying to understand the disorganised nature of children’s social care – but offers no real solutions.
There are many complex reasons why children and young people are taken into care. And it can be a very turbulent experience, with long-lasting effects on families. For abuse and urgent safeguarding reasons, child social care is an unfortunate necessity.
But lots of working-class youth have been taken into care due to financial pressures that have contributed to family breakdown. Professionals in the field put poverty as one of the main reasons why children go into care.
Around 80,000 children are currently in care. The review projects that number to drastically rise to 100,000 within a decade. So, why the increase?
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, from 2010, the first public sector institutions to receive the axe of budget cuts were in the welfare state, including social services and local authority departments specialised in supporting struggling families.
Families at breaking point
Austerity cuts matter as they have directly contributed to the material conditions of creating breaking points in families. Widespread poverty increases the likelihood of children going into care.
Since 2010, council preventative and family support services in England have been cut by 71%. Some council’s ‘cost-cutting’ housing initiatives have been akin to social cleansing. This has resulted in many homeless and struggling families being relocated to areas with no support or preventative services available.
A combination of draconian punitive welfare reforms have pushed more children into absolute poverty – currently 3.9 million children. In some areas of my home city, Birmingham, the percentage of children living below the poverty line is as high as 50%.
Teenage pregnancy support, respite care for disabled children, and support services have all experienced millions of pounds of cuts. Former Tory work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith even tried to change the definition of child poverty.
Gutting public services also meant marketisation, privatisation and big business profiteering. The review says: “We do not generally refer to this as a market, as homes for children should never been seen as a commodity”. But the next paragraphs in the report demonstrate the exact opposite. There is profit being made from children being in care, which is completely unacceptable.
Gordon Brown’s Labour government introduced the Children and Young Person’s Act 2008, allowing local authorities in England and Wales to privatise social work services for children in public care. From the start of creeping privatisation under Tony Blair, the Tories since then have ideologically pushed for more and more involvement from market forces within children’s services. 79% of children’s homes are run by the private or ‘voluntary’ sector.
These companies are not involved for altruistic reasons. The overarching aim is profit.
The £3.7 billion care industry is a very lucrative one. The Financial Times stated in 2013: “Fostering sector is ripe for consolidation”, meaning that our struggling children’s services, decimated by ideologically driven austerity cuts, are seen as a prime cash cow for wealthy individuals.
The Financial Times also said: “Fostering is a growth market. More than 50,000 children were placed in care in 2012, up 3.7% in 2011… The number is widely expected to grow as benefit cuts pile the pressure on struggling families and children with severe disabilities are given life-prolonging medical treatment”.
I have met and lived with foster carers who have massive fears of how much foster care is privatised.
The Social Audit Network states: “Millions of pounds that could be reinvested in the care of children are instead leaving the system as bumper payouts to shareholders. Directors enjoy very generous pay packets, while some companies are siphoning profits out through tax havens in the Channel Islands and the Caribbean”.
The most profitable company was actually an organisation I was assigned to when I was in care, Foster Care Associates. An income of £127 million in 2014, £7 million payouts to its owner, and the salary and other benefits of the highest-paid director came to £406,000.
In 2018, Foster Care Associates was sold to private equity firm Capvest, who had a portfolio of businesses including private hospitals, meat processors, and a Scandinavian rubbish collector. Capvest, like so many other private equity firms, sees the childcare sector for what it is – a profitable market for big business.
Looked-after children, care leavers and the users of associated services are not a “growth market” to be exploited. They are a marginalised group.
The review’s two standout recommendations are:
- Adding ‘care experienced’ to the list of protected characteristics in equality law
- A windfall tax on the top 15 largest private children’s homes and fostering providers
While it’s a positive step for disadvantaged people to have their rights technically protected under the law, if the material economic conditions of austerity-gutted services, low-paid jobs, skyrocketing rents and the ever-increasing cost of living are still in place that effect these vulnerable communities the most, then what’s the point? How would my protected characteristic protect me from scumbag landlords, low-paying bosses or ever-increasing NHS waiting times?
And, at best, windfall taxes are a stopgap. At worst, they allow companies to carry on profiteering – no more than a nice PR stunt.
The childcare sector needs to be taken back into public ownership, and run democratically by service users and workers. The organised workers’ movement, through trade unions, can fight for the rights of everyone in the sector – service users and workers. Foster carers deserve to be recognised as key workers also.
Austerity, poverty, and capitalist profiteering contribute to children going into care. This rigged system needs to be replaced by something radically different to take care of all society’s needs – reverse every austerity cut, put people first not profit, and for workers’ control and democracy of our social care services.
This is a fight for socialism.