The move, which means providers no longer have to register with Ofsted before taking on local authority contracts, was made under a controversial provision in the Deregulation Act 2015, which became law in March.
Until now, providers of social work services had to meet a number of requirements set by Ofsted including vetting checks, interviews, and a visit to the proposed premises.
Latest data from Ofsted shows that there are currently just five independent providers, commissioned to provide social care services, but numbers are expected to grow following moves by the previous coalition government to encourage outsourcing within children’s social care.
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said it is concerned about a possible expansion of outsourcing and is critical of the decision to remove independent providers from regulation.
Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at BASW, said it represented a “laissez-faire approach” to independent providers.
“Appropriate checks and balances need to be applied to whoever is providing services to vulnerable children,” she said.
A previous government consultation, carried out in 2013, into ending Ofsted regulation of third-party providers prompted strong opposition from organisations in the sector and the government performed a U-turn on the plans.
The move to revive the idea through the Deregulation Bill was pushed through parliament last year despite continued opposition including from organisations including The College of Social Work (TCSW).
TCSW chief executive Annie Hudson said concerns remain over their accountability and transparency without Ofsted regulation.
She said: “The college advised that removing regulation from these delegated services, which are generally still in fairly early stages of development, was a premature step.”
“When it is appropriate to outsource social care services, commissioning and quality assurance systems must be transparent, focusing on securing the best outcomes for people needing services and with clear accountability for decisions.”
Controversial proposals to outsource children’s services, including child protection, to private firms were mooted by then Education Secretary Michael Gove in 2013.
As a result of concerns within the sector, the coalition government ruled out handing profit-making companies a role in providing child protection services last year.
However many in the sector are concerned that under the new regulations, private firms could still be able to run child protection services through not-for-profit subsidiaries.
Unison’s assistant national officer Matthew Egan said: “By allowing private contractors to be responsible for child protection, serious questions must be asked as to whether the best interests of young people or the profits of the contractors will be the priority.”
A Department for Education spokesman said that even though third-party providers are no longer regulated by Ofsted their work with vulnerable children will still be inspected as part of local authority provision.
He said: “Nothing is more important than keeping children safe and this change has no impact on the safeguards that are in place to protect vulnerable children.
“Should a council choose to outsource social work provision it will remain accountable for those services.
“Providers will be inspected by Ofsted in exactly the same way they are now and should those services fail to reach the high standards rightly expected by the public, the Secretary of State can and will intervene.”