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Warning of legal challenge to procurement of residential care places for children

The Independent Children's Homes Association (ICHA) has warned that a legal challenge to local authority procurement of care places is possible without radical reform of the current system.

It said in a policy paper Smart Thinking for Residential Child Care for the Next Five Years that there was “firm ground for a legal challenge to current procurement activity by local authorities” arising from concerns about how providers were treated in this process, which it felt was excessively focused on cost cutting.

But the ICHA said such a challenge would be unhelpful and could carry “unintended implications”.

Any challenge would almost certainly come from one provider or small group of them and the effects would be unplanned but “could be major”, it said.

The ICHA said local authorities see providers as the stronger party in negotiations but providers thought the reverse was true.

“There is the need to enhance the standing of the professional identity and integrity the sector; without this, the direction of residential care will continue to be directed by local authorities solely,” the paper said.

“The current financial situation of many providers is not secure.”

This was despite the excess of demand over supply giving some providers “an unwarranted confidence that the current situation will remain for the foreseeable future. ICHA analysis is that there are too many destabilising influences for such confidence”.

The paper said commissioning should seek “holistic solutions to meet need rather than proscribing what the solution looks like” and that a cultural change was needed to “a clear commissioning role, as a verb and activity not a noun and role, inclusive of both commissioner and provider”.

It also called for successful commissioning to be measured by a child’s progress, rather than cost reduction.

The paper called for reforms to the way in which the Department for Education addresses residential care including the creation of a looked-after children strategy that joins up all types of provision on equal parity.

Local authority social work caseloads should be designed to allow relationships with young people to be prioritised, it said.

A future paper will address ICHA concerns over contracts, regulation, ownership of provision, finance and the role of the police.

Mark Smulian

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