The Conservatives may use social worker co-operatives to pass on responsibility for difficult spending decisions at a time when council budgets are being slashed, according to a leading academic.
Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, said many politicians were interested in the co-operative model as a way to “do things on the cheap”.
His comments follow the Conservatives’ announcement last week that social workers and other public sector staff would be given the right to form co-operatives to take over delivery of services if the party wins the general election, expected to be on 6 May.
As part of a Tory pre-election appeal, Osborne said co-operatives would “cut waste and deliver better services for everyone” by giving power to workers.
Jones agreed that the co-operative model could provide social workers with the space to work autonomously. But he said: “It’s sad to see a potentially good idea put at risk at a time when money is going to be reduced.
“This could be a way of passing on the responsibility for money when budgets are being cut.
“What’s driving this in terms of political interest? Is it a view on what’s going to make things better? Or is it what’s going to make things cheaper?”
Trade unions Unison and Unite went a step further last week and accused the Conservatives of wanting to “break up” the public sector.
But Guy Turnbull, director of The Social Work Co-operative, a social worker-owned agency which supplies staff to local authorities, said co-operatives offered a “psychological benefit” for staff.
“There is a risk of breaking up services with any externalisation, but clearly things aren’t working as they are,” he said.
“We need to think more smartly about what, where and how social work is done.”