Third sector and TUC agreement on future of children’s services commissioning

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Children England, along with many of their member organisations and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) have published a new joint agreement on the future of children’s services commissioning.

The agreement – Declaration of Interdependence in Children’s Services – has been reached following concerns that the government’s narrow market-led approach to provision is having a detrimental impact on both the quality of services for children and employment conditions for staff. The signatory organisations are using the agreement to lead debate on the future of children’s services, targeting local and national government.

Principles included in the agreement:

- procurement to be based on quality, not price

funding settlements for children’s services to be long-term and sustainable

- exploration of alternatives to competitive tendering, such as grants

- maximum transparency and accountability when services are outsourced

- an end to exploitative employment practices such as zero-hour contracts, and a commitment to paying the Living Wage.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “For many years, local councils have formed innovative partnerships with voluntary organisations, which are well placed to engage with and empower children and young people in the communities they serve. But their positive impact on children’s lives is now being undermined by destructive spending cuts and a market free-for-all that forces price-based competition on them.

“Our new model of collaboration between local councils and community and voluntary organisations is an opportunity for local and national government to move on from outdated and discredited free-market dogma. Children’s rights can be crowded out by market ideology, but they are at the heart of our new shared vision. It also prioritises the quality of children’s services and high employment standards for those who work with and care for are children, both of which are at risk of a race to the bottom if they have to play second fiddle to price-based competition.”

Kathy Evans, Chief Executive of Children England, said: “Charities and public services have a long history of working together out of their shared commitments and missions for children. Every year children’s charities ease the strain on public spending on children’s services by raising and spending millions in voluntary income to support children, young people and families, and by marshalling the time and skills of millions of volunteers. On both public and voluntary sides of that relationship, however, price-driven competition is eating away at the funds that reach the front line of support for vulnerable children, and risk a damaging ‘chase to the bottom’ that is whittling away at the quality, capacity and morale of children's services.

“If we could put fluorescent markers on every taxpayer and charity pound being spent purely on the processes of competing for contracts then we might all be able to see more clearly the sheer scale of resources being drawn away from the ‘front line’ of children’s services. Yet there is surprisingly scant research evidence or data to justify this contracting merry-go-round.

“With no realistic prospect of the financial pressures on local authorities and charities being alleviated in the near future, whatever may happen at the next general election, spending this amount of money, time and energy on competing is increasingly wasteful.

“We believe that these reforms could unlock a far more creative and collaborative pooling of charity and state resources for children than competitive contracting could ever allow.”

Javed Kahn, Chief Executive of Barnardo’s, said: “The restructuring of the commissioning and funding relationships between the public and voluntary sectors is long overdue. Waters have been muddied over recent years, it is collaboration rather than rivalry that will ensure the needs of the child are the first and foremost priority for all parties. These reforms must result in the creation of an arena where charity and state resources can complement each other, rather than compete.

“As a provider Barnardo’s has seen the profound impact of short term contracts on children’s services. Vision and commitment are needed to achieve a step change in outcomes for vulnerable children.

“Public contracts in transport, for example, can be 15 years long. Notwithstanding the differences between the two, many contracts in children’s services are commissioned and re-commissioned every one to two years. This causes unnecessary instability, waste and disruption. It reduces the potential benefits to children and is a time-consuming and costly process that neither children nor the country can afford.

“The Declaration of Interdependence comes at a critical time. Services are under great pressure and Barnardo’s believes wider debate surrounding their future is needed.”

* The full agreement document Declaration of Interdependence in Children’s Services can be found here: www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Declaration_Of_Interdependence_2014_T...

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