The private sector cannot be relied upon to
provide consistent services, says social work lecturer Peter
Recent moves by the NSPCC to close 18 projects
and the Children’s Society to axe its services in Wales have been
met by disappointment and condemnation. But, perhaps these
decisions should prompt some reflection on how much we are coming
to rely on the independent sector to provide social care to
vulnerable people. Independent agencies are always going to be free
to take this kind of action – they are, after all, independent.
Successive governments have produced an
effective consensus that the independent sector is self-evidently a
“good thing” and should be encouraged to grow. The implication of
this view being that there is something inherently wrong with
state-provided services. The atrophy of local authorities’ role in
direct provision, particularly of adult services, has been
deliberately encouraged. Local authorities are now buying more home
care from the independent sector than they provide themselves –
mainly private sector provision.
But, when faced with a lack of profits,
private providers desert the market. This leaves local authorities
with a statutory duty to provide care but without the direct means
to do so. Surely this is absurd. How would we like to be protected
by a fire service which, when called upon to put out fires, had no
staff or equipment of their own but were obliged to commission
services from independent fire fighters? When an independent
provider goes bust, sells out, relocates or has a staffing crisis,
local authorities must still continue to meet statutory
obligations. Non-statutory provision is inherently unstable: a
contract to care doesn’t carry the same degree of accountability as
the duty to care.
The creation of a thriving independent sector
was designed to promote competition and diversity. In a
traditionally low-paid industry this has meant downward pressure on
wages, weakened job security and very little spent on training.
Many independent providers struggle to recruit and retain staff,
often competing for the same small pool of workers as local
authorities. These factors are likely to add nothing to the quality
of a service to the client.
At a time when government has pledged to
address the postcode lottery, constructing a system of social care
around the variability, fragility and instability of many
independent agencies is surely a contradiction.
The independent sector has its role to play,
but the key to improving public services must be to invest more in
local authority provision. This should be the backbone not the rump
of social care in Britain.