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CMA Report on Social Care for Children Highlights Market and Procurement Issues

Life goes on despite the temptation to doomscroll Twitter and Facebook all day for the latest news on Russian atrocities.  But there hasn’t really been much else to cheer, and some news that should have generated more attention in normal times passed almost unremarked.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published a report last week on the provision of children’s social care (fostering and children’s homes) to UK local councils.  The CMA looks at issues from an economic point of view rather than as procurement experts, but their worrying findings in this case clearly indicate some major procurement (and market) issues.

The final report “found there is a shortage of appropriate places in children’s homes and with foster carers, meaning that some children are not getting the right care from their placement. Some children are also being placed too far away from where they previously lived or in placements that require them to be separated from their siblings. This shortage also means that high prices are often being paid by local authorities, who are responsible for placing children in appropriate settings, with these costs picked up by taxpayers”.

The CMA also commented on the risk of providers going bust – and yet in some parts of the market, providers are making what we might call “excess profits”, with margins of 20%.

“For the children’s homes providers in our cross-GB data set we have seen steady operating profit margins averaging 22.6% from 2016-20, with average prices increasing from £2,977 to £3,830 per week over the period, an average annual increase of 3.5%, after accounting for inflation”.

As an example of the sort of supplier that plays in this market (accepting of course that not all are of this nature), the Guardian recently featured a report about Robert McGuinness, who was paid £1.5m by two local authorities between 2015 and 2020. He owned a “community interest company” (CIC) which provided vocational training to children from 14-16, excluded from mainstream schools.

“The owner of a children’s home in Bolton shut down for “serious and widespread failures” spent thousands intended for educating marginalised children on drinking, foreign trips and his pub business, the Guardian can reveal”.

He siphoned money out of the CIC through a “director’s loan”  to invest in another of his businesses (running a bar).  The bar has since gone bankrupt and the liquidator says “there is currently no prospect” of the CIC settling the £100,000 loan repaid.  He also drives a Lamborghini – just the sort of public-spirited person you’d want to see running sensitive social services for youngsters.

The market failure evident in this sector has a number of causes. One ironically arises from the attempts to regulate the market. Even though that is well-meaning and certainly necessary to some extent, it creates more barriers to entry. Well-functioning markets see new entrants coming in and competing all the time, and also firms can exit the market relatively easily. Buyers can also switch suppliers easily in well-functioning markets; not the case here given the nature of the services.   

There are other barriers to entry in this case, such as the need for capital investment.  Over the past 20 years or so, the amount of public sector provision of such services has disappeared, replaced by private provision. One reason has been the need for investment in council-owned facilities. Rather than finding the money for that, as central government grants to local government have declined, councils have increasingly closed down their own facilities such as children’s homes and care homes  and bought those services from private providers.

That has weakened competition further. Then we can see a failure of procurement and contract management too. Do buyers know what margins are being made by their providers?  And how well are providers managed? I suspect because the users of the service are kids, there isn’t a lot of connection between the providers, the users and the commissioners (and budget holders) for the services.  Councils have seen headcount reduced in areas such as contract management too as income was squeezed.  The report on the gov.uk website agrees that something needs to be done.

“The CMA’s analysis finds that the main reason for this is the fragmented system by which services are commissioned, which means that local authorities are not able to leverage their role as the purchasers of placements or to plan properly for the future”.

To address these issues, the CMA recommends that the UK Government, Scottish and Welsh Governments, “create or develop national and regional organisations that could support local authorities with their responsibilities in this sector. These would improve commissioning by carrying out and publishing national and regional analysis and providing local authorities and collective bodies with guidance and by supporting them to meet more placement needs in their local area”.

I am no lover of aggregation of spend and centralisation of public sector procurement.  But this does seem like an area where a national “category strategy” and some serious procurement talent needs to be brought to bear.  

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