Care & Support Tender abandoned … for now …

The Finance and Resources committee today agreed not to proceed with the awarding of Care and Support contracts as originally proposed.

On the face of it, this is good news.  It means that people currently receiving care and support services should not experience a change in provider, and they should not have to move to Direct Payments (more on this later), unless they want to.  So far, so good.  However, the competitive tendering of these services is not going to go away.  We will get, some time in the summer, a Commissioning Strategy for the Council will be brought forward.  I have no doubt that further tendering processes will be carried out on the back of this strategy.

I am instinctively against the automatic competitive tendering of services, and have argued this position consistently over the last nearly three years as a councillor.  Putting services out to tender, rather than coming to agreement with service providers via Service Level Agreements drawn up on the basis of specific requirements and localised principles, raises several issues:

Firstly, it assumes that the market is the best place for deciding the cost of service provision.  Despite protestations to the contrary, quality factors necessarily take a back seat in such a process; if Best Value is the bottom line, then lower prices are what will score more points, regardless of the quality of the service that can be bought for that price.  Quality issues are considered, but the line between quality and cost is very difficult to maintain, and the details are often obscured.

Secondly, tendering often results in the smaller organisations (often local, community-based voluntary organisations) losing out to larger companies that can afford to bid lower because they have a larger financial cushion.  The effects of this on employees and communities cannot be overestimated.  Small organisations have the potential to respond to individual needs more appropriately, especially when their employees live and work in the same communities as the service users.  Relationships between service users and their carers have to be built on trust, respect and compassion; characteristics that are all too often lost in larger organisations with little direct connection to the communities they serve.  Small organisations might also feel pressured into restructuring and merging with others to reduce overhead costs.  Whilst this can be hugely beneficial for all involved, and can result in robust, sustainable organisations, assuming that it will be automatically, without any proper support or consultation, is both naive and patronising.

Thirdly, if some service providers lose out to larger ones, and their viability as organisations is jeopardised, their staff are not guaranteed employment in the new service provider organisations.  The lack of income security experienced in tender processes is not good for anyone.  Even if the new service providers can employ staff from the unsuccessful bidders, there is little or no guarantee that their pay and conditions will be as good as they were prior to the tendering process.  Yes, there are regulations governing the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) – or TUPE – but there are loopholes and caveats in such arrangements that can mean staff face pay or condition reductions within weeks of their transfer.  I firmly believe that it is the Council’s duty to ensure that the workers in our city are treated fairly – and we have seen too many examples where TUPE just hasn’t worked.

These are just some of the reasons why competitive tendering is problematic.  Granted, there may be justifiable reasons for going down this path, but only once the impacts on individuals and communities have been fully thought through.

Whenever any service redesign is considered, consultation and communication with all the different parties involved is crucial; and this should not just be a discussion of decisions to be taken.  Rather than presenting a couple of options to people, if we want to be truly consultative, then we should include them right from the beginning in the design of what the various options might be.

There is more to be said on all of this, including the key issue of Direct Payments that were set at £15.04 today, but these will have to wait for the next post …

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