Written by Kris O’Sullivan – Socialist Party Birmingham Central
The general election is fast approaching in Britain and June 8th will roughly mark approximately seven years of austerity that has had devastating, widespread, and long-lasting effects on working-class people and the marginalised groups that comprise it.
These groups consist of single-parents, the homeless, disabled, LGBT, long-term unemployed, people of colour, women, mental health sufferers and many more individuals – including Care Leavers.
What is a care-leaver you might ask?
The technical definition is ‘’A care leaver is defined as a person aged 25 or under, who has been looked after by a local authority for at least 13 weeks since the age of 14; and who was looked after by the local authority at school-leaving age or after that date’’
As a group that has little visibility in the mainstream media it is understandable that a lot of the general public would of not heard the term before but will probably have some familiarity with the term of when an individual was under the care of a local authority prior to leaving, a ‘looked after-child’ or a ‘child in care’.
Current statistics suggest that there are 70,000 – 86,000 looked after children living in the UK presently. If we extend these findings and apply them to individuals who have been under local-authority care for a significant amount of time – be it residential, foster or a specialist institution under the auspices of social services, then it is safe to say that there are several hundred thousand care-leavers living in Britain today.
How Has Austerity Affected Social Services / Care – Leavers
Back in 2010 and as seen in previous recessions, the first intuitions within the public sector to receive the swing of the axe of budget cuts was those institutions found within the welfare state, including social services. This gave way to the exasperation of the current Foster care crises being felt today in which there is a chronic shortage of available foster-carers.
Recent years have seen now-resigned conservative ministers trying to change the definition of child poverty to evoke a more fuzzy, judgemental, moralistic dimension to it by removing icome equality but instead adding other factors such ‘bad life choices’ like unstable relationships. Commentators correctly criticised the main advocate of this, previous Minister of Work and Pensions Ian Duncan Smith, that with this new definition the Tories would effectively avoid their obligation to end child poverty by 2020, as outlined within the 2010 Child Poverty Act, an act they tried to scrap. Fortunately, the backlash of this attempted change in definition resulted in the Tories retreating and a U-turn was actioned.
The effects of austerity have continuously toughened and complicated all spheres of life and importance when it comes to care-leavers. A joint report published last year by several leading childrens charities outlines that the result of gutting funding for local authorities is an increase in pressure on social services that are already pushed to breaking point. These pressures may have dangerous results for many families.
Various studies have suggested that austerity negatively affects all three of the key stages of a care-leaver’s life. An analysis of these findings to quantify the true damaging extent of austerity is highlighted below.
- More children are being taken into care by social services from struggling single-parent and working class families due to council preventative and family support services in England being cut by 71%.
- This is compounded by the housing crisis felt by working-class families across Britain. With certain councils under the marching orders of ‘ budget-saving’ initiatives due to austerity measures, are akin to acting out social-cleansing of many areas across the country. This results in many homeless and struggling families being relocated to areas with no support and preventative services available – further exacerbating the numbers of children going into care. It is clear that a vicious circle is taking place.
- Combined punitive and draconian welfare reforms are pushing more children into absolute poverty and putting an enormous amount of strain on previously mentioned struggling families. Currently 3.9 million children are estimated to be living in poverty. 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, support services, are likely see cuts from £1bn to £3.2bn over the next four years under another Conservative government.
The previously mentioned foster care crisis has led there to a chronic shortage in the number of foster carers available in Britain, resulting in added pressure to the already exhausted social services. A leading foster care charity produced a report gauging the attitudes of foster carers who, when asked about if austerity had detrimentally affected foster care, overwhelmingly stated yes and pointed to several important reasons why which are explored below.
- Allowances – The money from the fostering service to be spent on the needs of the child has been adversely affected by austerity, as local council budgets being cut has resulted in an increasing financial burden on carers, which is somewhat ironically one of the contributing reasons for young people being taken into care in the first place. This prevents some carers being unable to provide ‘extras’ such as school trips and extracurricular activities.
- Access to fostered child’s social worker – Felt department cutbacks had significantly lowered the quality of this service. With increased workloads (including spiralling out of control referrals per social worker) there is a culture of over-worked social workers, massive turn-over rates and increased use of agency workers.
- Access to services – Major issues are being experienced by carers trying to access additional services outside of the immediate remit of fostering such as mental health referrals and support. In addition, appalling respite provision and poor support groups contributing to the chronic shortage to carers, compounded by funding being cut directly linked to training is resulting in degradation of both availability and quality.
- Privatisation and Market Forces.
From it’s initial start of creeping privatisation back during Tony Blair’s administration the Tories since then have ideologically pushed for more and more involvement from market forces within children’s services with some of the more horrifying facts and proposed legislation being highlighted below
- Private equity firms dominate residential children’s homes with 79% of children’s homes being run by private or voluntary sector.
- The ‘New Labour’ joint Blair/Brown project introduced the Children and Young Person’s Act 2008 allowing local authorities in England and Wales to discharge (privatise) their ‘corporate parenting’ function of social work services for children in public care via ‘Social Work Practices’.
- In 2014 the Conservatives were keen to open up core child protection services to market forces and for-profit organisations. However, due to mass opposition by the general public and in particular, Professor Eileen Munro, the chosen individual commissioned by Michael Gove to publish the report stated in the conclusion of her findings that it would be ‘perverse’ to have market forces involved.
- Later on in 2016, the Conservatives tried to pick up where they left off with a new report called ‘The potential for developing the capacity and diversity of children’s social care services in England’ published by ex-Tony Blair advisor Julian Le Grand. Within the report under the chapter ‘Appetite for market entry’ Le Grand actively pursues the engagement from for-profit organisations of whose directing managers express ‘enthusiasm and eagerness’ to begin the process of bidding on tenders resulting in local authorities being sold of. However once again, thanks to co-ordinated opposition from staff, service users and the general public the government was forced to distance itself from the report and scrap the idea.
- Much like Frankenstein’s monster, the Tories ideological pursuit to open up children services to market forces sees them yet again trying to resurrect previously defeated and opposed plans. This time it comes in the form of the ‘Children and Social Work Bill’ which under the guise of ‘innovation’ which will pave the way for ‘academia style’ reforms. In essence this bill is designed to allow the lifting of the ban on for-profit organisations taking over core parts of child protection services. Again, this was defeated by mass-opposition and narrowly being voted down in the house of lords.
The above list illustrates a consistent desire from the Conservatives to introduce market forces and creeping privatisation into our children’s services. The question must be raised of who would this benefit? Does it benefit the service user/service workers or big business and private individuals accumulating vast amounts of money?
Clearly it is the latter.
So how much money can these organisations profit from running children’s services. Quite a lot apparently.
These companies do not become involved for simply altruistic reasons. The overarching aim is profit. It would appear that the £3.7 Billion ‘Care’ industry is a very lucrative one to become involved in. As The Financial Times times so eloquently stated, the ‘’Fostering sector is ripe for consolidation’’ meaning that our struggling children’s services decimated by ideologicallyl driven austerity cuts are seen as a prime cash cow for wealthy individuals.
The Financial Times, the paper of choice for so many ‘Venture capitalists’, went on to state ‘’fostering is a growth market. More than 50,000 children were placed in care in 2012, up 3.7 per cent in 2011, according to official figures. 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’’
The article clearly outlines how business is booming in regards to children being taken into care as a result of austerity. With austerity being good for this new and upcoming ‘growth market’, with foster care specifically proving to be quite a profitable outlet to pursue as 100’s millions are garnered by the most successful private fostering outfits.
Track record : Market Forces Fail Children, Not Care for Them
The track record of for-profit organisations within children’s services is abysmal and shocking for those unfortunate enough to have their wellbeing put in their charge. Back in 2013, an emergency review was initiated in the aftermath of the Rochdale scandal in which it revealed that 63 children’s homes were rated within the worst ‘inadequate’ category of Ofsted. This was a 1/3 of the children’s service asset empire possessed by US owned equity firm ‘GI Partners’. On a national scale, this followed suit with 28% of all privately owned children’s homes falling within the same failure category.
As mentioned above this review was launched in the aftermath of the Rochdale child sex grooming scandal. One aspect of the story that was given little attention was the role of the unscrupulous ‘venture capitalists’. One of the victims was in a ‘’solo’’ residential home which Ofsted reports showed to be falling under the required staffing numbers and lack of training around child sex exploitation.
As Kevin Williams, chief executive of The Adolescent and Children’s Trust said in regards to this scandal “[…]The problem comes where it becomes about maximising profit. One of the ways of maximising profit is to reduce levels of support and increase the workload on staff.”
An additional example is the horrifying revelations made by the undercover panorama documentary last year of the disturbing malpractice and abuse taking place at the G4S run ‘Secure Training Centres’ or child prisons. The panorama documentary showed young adults – many who had been through the care system – having G4S staff using extremely excessive force and overall psychological/physical abuse. The training of these ‘officers’ was pitiful with a lack of transparent background checks/physiological tests taken.
As a result of these findings, a report of produced by the Howard League for Penal Reform illustrated how ‘’Children aged 13 to 15 living in children’s homes were found to be almost six times as likely to be criminalised as looked after children of the same age in other placements – and almost 20 times more likely to be criminalised than non-looked after children’’
Post – Care
When we consider the numerous socio-economic challenges faced by young working-class people trying to make their way in the world, this can be effectively doubled for care-leavers and made even worse by the presence of austerity as illustrated above. The figures for care leavers in many aspects is a sign of a broken and breaking social system. Below we see David Cameron at his last Conservative conference back in 2015 recognise facts about the life of care leavers upon leaving the system.
- The suicide rate among children formerly in care was four times the national average. In addition, during the middle of the coalition years when mental health services were beginning to feel the first wave of the major cutbacks to follow, care Leavers at the ages of 19-21 made up 1% of the general population of that demographic but comparatively made up 7% of the respective deaths of it.
- 40 – 60 per cent of sex workers had likely been in care.
However, Cameron failed the mention that:
- Care-leavers represent more than a quarter of our prison population
- Only 9% reach university, compared with the national average of 47%.
- 50% of looked after children suffer from clinical-level mental health problems with many remaining unwell post-care with mental health problems exacerbated by the lack of services available due to budget cuts.
- Roughly 1/3 of homeless individuals, especially youth, are care leavers/experienced time being ‘looked after’ by local authorities
General election – Support Corbyn
Corbyn’s anti-austerity position of putting the needs of the ‘many not the few’ is a welcomed message to receive for the care leaver community. Out of all the mainstream political manifestos for the upcoming election, the Labour manifesto was the only one that put forward concrete ideas regarding how to support many of the issues raised above, these include:
- ‘’And we will refocus social care to work with families in local communities to prevent children becoming at risk of going into care.’’
- ‘’The government is currently failing to develop a strategy for the wholesale improvement of the care system that delivers for all, not just those children being considered for adoption.’’
- ‘’We will promote the care and educational achievement of our most vulnerable children and increase support for children in kinship and foster care, and their families. It is important that other forms of care, such as kinship care and fostering, are not marginalised, as this will not result in the step-change we need to see in outcomes for looked after children.’’
- ‘’Labour will support further regulation of commercial fostering agencies, as well as commissioning a review on establishing a national fostering service.’’
- ‘’We will extend Staying Put arrangements to support all children and young people in residential and other forms of care until they are 21.’’
- ‘’We will enshrine the European Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law’’
These policies are a step in the right direction and would address some of the most visible chronic issues being faced by our at-breaking point social services and marginalised looked after children/care leavers. For this reason I’ll be voting Labour on June 8th to support Jeremy Corbyn and his anti-austerity platform.
Beyond Corbyn – Social movement, political battle to change system
The key points listed above in Labour’s manifesto in regards to care leavers/social services and Corbyn’s overall anti-austerity platform is a step in the right direction, but if a fundamental change is going to occur it cannot be by resting all of our hopes on one individual or limiting our political voice and power by being co-opted within mainstream parties.
The resistance of care leavers/looked-after children can come in many forms and taking inspiration from fellow marginalised groups who have formed their own networks of resistance independent of mainstream political parties. This is important as mainstream parties tend to have a tendency of watering down the most radical elements and neutralising dissent and the alternative challenging narratives to the status quo.
Groups to take inspiration from include the Mental Health Resistance network, Disabled People Against Cuts & most importantly the Social Workers and Service Users Against Austerity with the latter showing the most powerful tool needed in this fight, solidarity. From this grassroot movement, both sides of the victimisation of austerity can join forces, care leavers and staff, service users and social workers empowering both sides to fight back against these unnecessary ideological austerity attacks. A great example of 360 solidarity and successful coordinated political action between services users and social workers was seen in Spain during the ‘Orange Tide’ movement.
I have had the statement thrown at me before like it’s some kind of insult that I’m trying to ‘politicise’ Care Leavers, service users, social workers etc. Truthfully – yes I am! Our lives and line of work has been politicised from day one.
From vital frontline services being gutted to the creeping privatisation of children’s services this is a political attack, an individual battle part of a larger war on the welfare state orchestrated by the Tories and the Blairite old guard wanting to see social care returned to the Victorian days of ‘Christian charity’, whilst simultaneously trying to commodify looked after children.
Just as we need to radicalise our social workers and service users to fight for ‘’social change and the empowerment and liberation of people’’ as highlighted by the political-philosophy of radical social work and expressed clearly by groups such as SWAN NETWORK, we need to link this up to a completely new socio-economic system where people come first, not profit.
We need to challenge and fight to replace the ultimate root cause of all the ills that have been illustrated in this article, the system of capitalism. No matter how many achievements are won by ordinary people, capitalism will always seek to forever accumulate vast amounts of wealth for a tiny select few and roll back all the social achievements won by workers.
This will mean the continuation of devastating cuts, and the continuation of commodifying looked after children to be looked as a product to be purchased by large equity firms, will mean the continuation of alienating and stripping of all vocational willpower of social workers.
Under capitalism poverty will always be a feature of our society and as this system continues to go through boom and bust cycles it will be normal workers and service users who will suffer from this systems ‘perpetual crises’. This system will continue to commodify children and privatise their services through neo-liberal marketisation and ‘quasi-markets’ of hidden for-profit forces behind the ‘human face’ of voluntary trusts or charitable organisations.
Looked after children, care leavers, and services users are not a ‘growth market’ to be exploited anymore but instead are a marginalised group I call upon to link up arms with their fellow workers, trade unions, local authority service providers to fight to replace this rigged system and replace it with something radically different to take care of all society’s needs, to put people first not profit, to fight for socialism.