Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The race to the bottom is destroying care and support

Guest post by Joel Bodmer who is the UNISON Housing Association Branch Young Members officer. Joel works as a mental health support worker.

"There is at present a real crisis in the care and support sector, which seems to be hardly recognised or seems to attract a great deal of attention. There is currently a race to the bottom of epidemic proportions in social care, which although the causes are numerous, primarily stems from two government policy changes.

Firstly following the coalition’s 2010 comprehensive spending review, Local Authorities have been under incredible pressure faced with the reduction of revenue budgets by 28% over a 4 year period. How these cuts have been absorbed has of course been a matter of political choices.

Secondly the removing of the ring fencing of supporting people funding from 2009, has meant that local authorities could effectively raid money that was intended to be used for services for vulnerable people and use it elsewhere. Likewise of course here political choices by local authorities come into play here too, but the fact is local government has a legal obligation to provide statutory services, so even many well meaning authorities have been forced to divert this cash elsewhere. Quite literally robbing peter to pay paul.

Faced with such harsh cuts and often the diversion of funds from supporting people, it is frequently the “soft” services that suffer. The real tragedy is the short termism in this approach. It is the preventative services that are suffering, whereas greater investment could really reduce the strain on Social Services and the NHS.

Whatever the mantra so often repeated by commissioners that quality still matters, it has been an inevitable fact the emphasis has shifted almost purely to cost based procurement. A bizarre process of reverse auctions, gambling with the provision of services for the most vulnerable members of our society.

Like local authorities, Housing Associations that provide care and support have had choices to make too, they have been forced to reflect, to take stock and think about what they do and why. There has been an array of responses to the challenges faced.

The crisis has highlighted the calibre of many good organisations; those who have refused to engage in the merciless race to the gutter and those who have prided themselves on the quality of the services they provide. These organisations have refused to bid to deliver services at unaffordable low levels, and have focused on delivering what they can do well.

But likewise the “bad eggs” have been exposed, organisations (we all know who they are) that operate more like rogue traders, winning contracts because they bid at dishonestly low levels, masters of slick bid writing and all the razzmatazz rather than care and support. Of course once they have been awarded a contract they need to find a way of delivering it at below the real cost, such providers then set about restructuring services with a skeleton level of staffing and either failing to accept their legal obligations under Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) or employing new staff at rock bottom wages, and under poor terms and conditions.

It is a real sad situation that as a result of this race to the bottom many skilled and professional staff working in the sector are leaving in droves, many facing redundancy or the lowering of terms and conditions.

Good care and support providers need to lead the fight to re-jig the focus back towards quality, by refusing to engage in the race to the bottom that is so damaging not only to care and support but to society at large. 

The commitment to high standards in services for vulnerable people that is an engrained value of so many people working in our sector can only be achieved by a focus on quality rather than cost.
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