If only care services were as good as Tesco

There has been a seismic shift in the UK’s political landscape. Conservative leader David Cameron appears willing to commit the party to a genuinely new direction. Victor Adebowale

Meanwhile, the “weekend of the long knives”, as distasteful as it was, leaves open the future direction of the Liberal Democrats. We are likely to see three new leaders at the head of our main political parties at the next general election. In short, it is the most fluid time in terms of party policy that I can remember.

The most surreal example of these changes involved waking to the sound of the Today programme’s coverage of the Labour and Conservative “Respect” plans. While home secretary Charles Clarke emphasised the importance of fixed penalty notices and getting tough on “problem families”, his Tory counterpart, Oliver Letwin, waxed lyrical on the role of the voluntary sector and a social care approach to address underlying problems. Through the looking glass indeed!

Although it would be good to imagine that the two main parties will now try

to outflank each other by continually moving to the left , it doesn’t seem likely. Yet the current climate does present social care opportunities.

The Conservative Social Justice Review is welcome, though I hope the full contribution and role of the voluntary sector is considered, not just the “little battalions” that review chair Iain Duncan Smith implicitly hailed.

He criticised the “Tescoisation” of large organisations but here’s the thing; Tesco works. It has grown to the size it has because it meets people’s needs and social care providers could learn from it.

First, consider the brand. People know it, they trust it, they understand what they can get and where to find it. You also tend to find that Tesco’s stores, while sharing many characteristics, adapt to local need. My nearest Tesco in east London stocks 15 different types of rice, reflecting the fairly diverse community it serves. If we could only provide social care services as ubiquitous, well-branded and personalised as Tesco is, we could make dramatic inroads into many of the UK’s most intractable problems, finally providing a decent service to those with complex needs.

I suspect that IDS’s criticism is motivated by a fear of bureaucracy and a loss of independence, yet this is not the case. As readers will know, those with complex needs demand and deserve a professional, effective service. Yet professionalism does not equate to bureaucracy.

Innovation is alive and well, as evidenced by the government’s £28m family support scheme. True, we need to ensure that the commissioning environment enables service providers to get on with services, but that is just as true for small organisations as large ones.

And civil society is still very much alive. There are an 360,000 local community groups, while the year of the volunteers’ “give a billion minutes” campaign exceeded its target this month by nearly half again.

You can add to this commitments to youth volunteering programmes from both ends (or perhaps more accurately both middles) of the political spectrum.

There is a role for small and large groups in the sector – ideally collaborating, sharing expertise and capacity. There is space for both vocal public campaigns and other forms of influence – such as involvement in the social care steering group announced last year.

In my experience it is better to be sat at the table discussing policy than shouting outside the gates.

By all means expand the role of smaller organisations and community groups. But that doesn’t require a diminution of the role of large service providers (who now employ a larger workforce in the UK than the NHS). As with many areas of social care it’s not either/or, it’s and/and.

Lord Adebowale is chief executive of learning difficulties, mental health and substance misuse charity Turning Point

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