Published: 20/05/2004, Volume II4, No. 5906 Page 7

Children's charities have voiced concerns over Department of Health proposals to examine the potential for a 'market' in specialist children's services.

Last week, Andrew Sargent, director of local partnerships at the Department for Education and Skills, sent a letter to all primary care trust chief executives, local authority chief executives and directors of social services setting out long-term plans to 'promote contestability' in children's services.

Mr Sargent said the aim was to ensure children's trusts - which will provide integrated education, health and social care for all those aged under 19 - would be able to make an objective best-value assessment of providers.

The first step involves a study of the 'current and potential market' to ensure there is a choice of wellqualified providers to promote contestability, so prices and services can be compared.

Mr Sargent says the state of available services is 'at best patchy' but that ministers want to support development of innovative provision to meet the demands for integrated services and to remove some of the barriers that exist to potential providers in local authorities and the voluntary and community sector.

But charities, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the National Children's Bureau, are cautious about calls for a 'market'.

NSPCC director of services for children and young people Jennifer Bernard said opening specialised children's services such as those dealing with homelessness, fostering or sexual or physical abuse to the market might not be the best option.

'The usual procedure is that we would work together to develop a specific solution in partnership, rather than put it out to a plethora of bidders.

'Apart from anything else, there are not that many organisations in children's services that would be able to compete.'

And NCB chief executive Paul Ennals said he was pleased the government was encouraging collaboration with voluntary and community groups. But he said the tone of the letter 'implies the process is simply driven by market forces rather than the desire to provide an appropriate service'.

'Nothing is written [in the document] about what type of agency is providing what type of service - commissioning is not just about widening choice of providers and driving down prices. The children's voluntary sector has its own models of good practice and values, and that is different from those of the adult sector.'