The possible outsourcing of a pioneering all-age disability social work service has sparked concern among staff and families, despite support for its ambitions to join-up children’s and adults’ care.
Staffordshire council is in the process of setting up Independent Futures, which will provide assessments and brokerage for people of all ages with learning disabilities or autism and those under 18 with a physical or sensory impairment. The service is designed to provide more seamless care for disabled people through the allocation of a single key worker to people and their families, who would work with those with lifelong conditions through childhood into adulthood.
The council also believes Independent Futures will help promote independence for disabled people, reduce bureaucracy and avoid crisis management through the provision of lifelong support planning. It is also designed to improve support to people who do not meet eligibility criteria, who, it is claimed, would receive better signposting to universal services.
Social enterprise or private sell-off
While it is initially being launched as an in-house service, the council is considering whether it should be outsourced in future, either as a new social enterprise run in part by staff and service users or through sale to a private company. The council set up a company in the name of Independent Futures Staffordshire Limited last year so that a structure is in place to externalise it should that be decided. A consultation will be launched later in the year on how the service should be developed.
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Unison’s Staffordshire council branch said it backed the aims of Independent Futures but was concerned about the consequences of the service being externalised.
“Our members believe in the overriding principles of Independent Futures, the provision of quality, consistent social care as part of an all-age service, without the traditional split of adults’/children’s services, however members remain concerned at the overhanging threat of potential externalisation at some future point, which could mean social care being provided from a number of routes which would not be directly accountable to the community,” said branch secretary Steve Elsey.
Dave Dennison, a retired local government consultant whose daughter has learning disabilities and receives services from the council, said he also shared the objectives of Independent Futures but said these would be put at risk by externalising the service rather than retaining it in-house.
He warned that externalisation would weaken the accountability of the service to local residents, while a social enterprise would struggle to manage the administrative and staffing costs of the service more cheaply than the council, which can benefit from economies of scale.
While councils were used to managing contracts with private providers of direct care services, this model had not been applied to “such a sensitive task as learning disability assessments”. Any such company would have significant negotiating advantages over the council in the event that the contract needed to be negotiated, because the council would not have an alternative provider available to deliver its statutory obligations, warned Dennison.
“The lines of accountability for the assessment service are well-established and clear whilst it remains part of the county council. This clarity is lost in any scenario in which the organisation is externalised,” he added.
No decision as yet
Plans for Independent Futures published earlier this year said the possible benefits of externalising the service included a more entrepreneurial approach, access to commercial opportunities and funding streams not open to the council, and increased efficiency and flexibility in operations. But in a statement the council stressed no decisions had been taken.
“Independent Futures Staffordshire was set up as a limited company by Staffordshire County Council last year purely as a precautionary measure to ensure that the name and company structure would be in place should it be decided that Independent Futures will be run as a stand-alone service,” said Robbie Marshall, cabinet member for health and wellbeing. “Incorporating a limited company is a simple procedure that takes very little time and is simply part of good planning for every eventuality. No decision has been made as to how Independent Futures will be run or indeed whether it will be run externally or in-house. As a result, the company is currently dormant.”
He added: “Ultimately Independent Futures is about improving outcomes for people with disabilities across Staffordshire and we will develop the very best solution to achieve that aim.”
It is envisaged that Independent Futures would have about 190 full-time equivalent staff, 84 of whom would be key workers and 57 social workers; it is currently in the process of recruiting staff. The service will be set up initially in the Newcastle area before being rolled out across the county, though how this takes place will be subject to the forthcoming consultation.