Learning disability trust aims to split from NHS and set up social firm

A learning disability NHS Trust is seeking to break free from NHS control and set itself up as a social enterprise, in what is thought to be the first move of its kind.

Oxfordshire Learning Disability NHS Trust said it was considering the move because NHS targets were “not focused enough” on learning difficulties.

In a proposal to the Department of Health, the trust board highlighted an “increasing lack of match between NHS targets and what really demonstrates responsiveness and effectiveness in learning disability services”.

The trust, which is one of only two free-standing specialist learning disability NHS trusts in England, runs an integrated social care and health service.

Trust chair Yvonne Cox said setting up a social enterprise, where profits are reinvested in the business’s social objectives, would increase accountability.

She said the trust was encouraged by the government’s pledge in the health and social care white paper to promote social enterprise.

While the proposal is still at the “thinking stage”, the trust is exploring the potential financial impact.

It currently has a total income of £31m, from a section 31 pooled budget from agencies within Oxfordshire plus funding from primary care trusts in Swindon, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.

The proposal says it might have to replace some of its funding with “more commercial sources”, although it might also be able to access “more diverse income streams” than are available to NHS trusts.

Earlier this year, Oxfordshire Council said it needed an extra  £1.4m a year for the next three years to sustain learning difficulty services (Cash shortage in Oxfordshire leads to cut in single tenancies support , 23 March).

Nick Welch, Oxfordshire Council’s head of partnerships and planning, said the trust’s proposals could reduce pressures on the pooled budget “arising out of specific NHS requirements”.

The Social Enterprise Coalition, the national body for social enterprises, said it believed Oxfordshire was the first NHS trust to make the move.

Sandwell Community Caring Trust, which provides learning difficulties services, broke off from local authority control to become a social enterprise in 1997 following cuts to services.

Chief executive Geoff Walker said the move had resulted in a “tremendous turnaround” in quality of care.

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