We have not had a general policy direction for this new Government beyond Theresa May's conference speech where she stated the first duty of the state is to protect. The protective state outlined was of a state that looks after people.
This is different from both Blairite and Cameronean Government views of policy in a neoliberal state. There are neoliberals in the Government, we do not yet know the consensus that has been agreed to allow the two very different world views to coexist. The future direction of children's services, and Residential Child Care in particular, could be the area for this to be explored.
If the protective state road is followed it suggests a greater corporate direction and definition with less individual interpretation, more attention and investment to resilience than performance.
In ideal circumstances neoliberal theory may be practical; in our current world beset with economic downturn, it works less well its focus on the withdrawal of the state removing large scale initiators of demand, especially through the reduction of the local state, and especially with regard to children's services. With such a perspective the attention to reduction of absolute cost combined, for example, with the prevention of a child entering 'expensive' care, though the evidence is that the care system is beneficial, is an attractive constellation of policies if seeking to deliver on an ideology.
The consequences of social policy are often seen a decade or more onwards. The Residential Child Care sector is now reporting numbers of young people with a rising complexity of needs. Often these can have been exacerbated by the making of tens of prior placements before arriving at the most appropriate placement, a children's home. This delay in matching the needs to the specialist placement are frequently the result of the strategy skewed to early and preventative work, those with higher level needs have been left without direction other than, somehow, to be made smaller. The pressures now being keenly experienced are without design and combine to keep the response for higher level needs artificially low. Today demand for residential child care is rising rapidly indicating that the policy is need of urgent adjustment. From being briefed against, it needs to have its champions for its positive use in a range of options for young people.
Never fully explored and therefore not resolved but yet an active factor in thinking and policy was the place of children's services. In a 'third way' were they to be provided outside of the local state by private providers; in a 'big society' in its most grandiose formulation there was an implication that many of these could be provided by philanthropy, by individuals, hence a family based view of children's services, or through individuals acting together through voluntary agencies.
Protection can have many configurations as a policy trope in a Government that works for everyone. This might suggest another view being taken of the relationship between state and individual especially with regard to children's care and welfare.
The return of the state having some clear direction and definition of corporate parenting with clear practice guidance would be welcome. This state may not be prescriptive but it may be descriptive.
Clearly, from the demand for residential child care being reported the current state of children's services requires change.
A protective state, especially in a period of immense social and economic transition, might be less oriented to change.
The state that looks after people is not the same as the state that cares for people. If the latter is the direction then a new vision of welfare would be needed that directs spending to meet material and social needs.
How would this apply to Residential Child Care? An important statement to be made is of the level playing field for all sectors. To be seen to be promoting liberal social and economic principles requires the development of an open, competitive market. Despite, or perhaps more accurately because of prior guidance issued being focussed on Local Authorities, and with the materials that were 'translated' for social care by the Commissioning Support Programme coming from a health commissioning background, currently there is not a market in children's services placement but a monopsony. Local Authorities tightly manage all processes and levels of operations. The sole aspect the provider has is the provision of the placement; the Local Authority determines all aspects of care and business.
There is another residual element, the Local Authority Residential Child Care and fostering sector remain the first referral, this ensures we use placements sequentially and hierarchically. Such thinking that sees the independent sector as the last resort interferes with the development of a market. This separation needs sweeping away, no matter the ownership all placements should be involved in a national placement search.
There is also the inequality between fostering and Residential Child Care. Two examples show the disparity, and the list could be long. Inspection is lighter and does not include actual fostering placements to same scrutiny as children's homes, no matter a child might be in one yesterday and the other today. There are tax allowances for foster carers that do not apply to Residential Child Care. Children's homes need to be an equal case not a special case.
The protective state has to consider who is to be looked after and how. The optimum use of Residential Child Care, those needs Residential Child Care best suits, is outlined in the research review 'What Works in Residential Child Care.' A return to this evidence and away from ideology is necessary if the policy towards Residential Child Care is to make sense in terms of presenting needs of young people. There is a grave concern that the new Government What Works evidence base and centre is predicated on an anti- Residential Child Care stance. There has been investment in non- Residential Child Care research but very little in Residential Child Care. The evidence base stands to be skewed in orientation and outcome to the degree it could not be relied upon as a basis for policy development.
The first statement of a protective state regarding social care for children could be to make a positive view of Residential Child Care a public commitment. From there Residential Child Care can be included as a positive place for some young people once again and relieve Local Authorities of their thankless task in trying to avoid it.
The protective state has to unashamedly discriminate, and do so not as in neoliberalism on terms of rivalry, ranking, contests and markets. A new direction is needed to welfare where spending is directed to meeting social and material needs. More has been done for less; continuing this famine less will be available with less. Demand rises; either reality, or the policy, is in need of adjustment