Foster-Care Commissioning in an Age of Austerity: The Experiences and Views of the Independent Provider Sector in One English Region

This paper reports findings from a study on the effects of austerity measures on local authority commissioners and independent fostering providers (IFPs) in the year following the coalition government's first Spending Review in 2010. It highlights legal and procedural factors which may present a challenge to effective foster-care provision.

  • Author Clive Sellick
  • British Journal of Social Work, 44 (2014)

It should be noted that the paper focuses on policy and practice in the early months of the new coalition administration in Britain, at a time of national austerity.

Research and policy

Commissioning child care placements from external agencies can present challenges for local authority commissioners and IFPs. These arise from the shared corporate parenting of vulnerable children and appear to be heightened when care is provided within a business model (Sellick, 2011).

The law permits a much wider and more mixed economy of provision for foster care than it does for adoption. Most externally commissioned foster care and related educational and therapeutic services are from the private sector, which is not the case for adoption where voluntary and not-for-profit agencies provide placements. At the time of the study, most authorities had reduced the use of voluntary sector adoption agencies, with a preference to place children with a council's in-house carers or through a regional consortia approach. More recently, the government set out its proposals to move to regional adoption agencies, bringing together provision between councils and adoption agencies.

At the time of the study, guidance from the Department for Children, Schools and Families recommended that council commissioners should strike a balance between achieving quality and value (cost) when collaborating with IFPs. However, evidence suggests that value may trump quality such that larger IFPs are able to undercut the competition and dominate the market at the expense of smaller agencies (Sellick, 2011).

Study findings

This small-scale qualitative study, comprising interviews with managers in six IFPs in one locality in England, explored their experiences of commissioning processes. The following themes emerged from the interviews:

  • Referrals
    All but one of the interviewees identified a sudden reduction in referrals after the October 2010 Spending Review. They reported that the authority had taken specific measures to maximise its own internal placement provision in order to minimise their costs.
  • Contracting arrangements
    Four of the IFPs had a national reach, with offices across the country. Senior staff members of these agencies were well versed in commissioning arrangements and tendering for placement contracts. Interviewees also noted that, even though councils had established regional commissioning consortia, they tended to act independently in ways which were often at odds with their regional partners.
  • Working relationships
    IFP managers and councils social work staff continued to collaborate effectively. However, there was some evidence of austerity undermining how IFP managers worked alongside council staff. Two factors presented a threat to collaborative working: predatory practice ("poaching" carers from the IFP) and the operation of procurement rules. The latter was identified as changing the nature of working relationships, as well as preventing IFP managers from sharing their plans.
  • Maintaining professional practice
    All IFP managers stressed the importance of maintaining professional standards in child placement, ensuring that these were child-centred and appropriate.
  • The fostering "market"
    IFP managers described how councils continued to use their agencies as a last resort for placement procurement, despite research by Holmes and Soper (2010) showing that IFP costs are broadly in line with their own. However, they also acknowledged the complexity and time-consuming nature for authorities of the external commissioning process.

Implications for practice

  • Councils should make better use of IFPs rather than use them as a last resort for placing children.
  • Groups of authorities should work together and have common tendering processes for commissioning placements. It is argued that this would lead to a wider concentration of expertise and also help with negotiating placement provision with IFAs at a reduced cost through guaranteeing particular independent providers a certain level of business.
  • The DfE review of foster care also recommends that larger councils or consortia should aim to become self-sufficient in carer recruitment or, alternatively, partner with one or more IFPs to provide fostering services. This is likely to be more cost effective and improve the quality of practice than the current model of unplanned practice and part recruiting and part purchasing foster care.

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