Conservative proposals to allow public sector workers to “become their own boss” by forming co-operatives have received a mixed response from social workers.
While the unions have warned the policy could lead to privatisation through the back door, legal experts and sector leaders say the model raises fundamental questions about accountability and financial responsibility when applied to social care.
Shadow chancellor George Osborne last month said any public sector team delivering a function that could be paid according to a simple results-based contract drawn up with central government could form a co-operative.
The Conservatives used as an example the Right to Request scheme, which allows NHS staff to apply to primary care trusts for permission to set up independent enterprises. However, they admitted they are still “consulting” on how a similar model could be transferred to local government.
But Unison, which represents 40,000 social workers in the UK, slammed the proposal, calling it “a plan to break up public services, plunge them into confusion and then let the private sector pick over their bones”.
One of the union’s biggest concerns is whether social workers would be able to meet additional responsibilities of co-owning an organisation without extensive management training.
John Goodman, head of policy for Co-operatives UK, warns that the shift from a public sector to a co-operative working environment is not straightforward. “Moving from being an employee or service user to the owner and controller of a service is a fundamental shift in role and responsibility,” he says.
“Co-operatives must generate enough income not just to cover their costs, including employing staff on similar terms and conditions, but also to build up reserves against lean times, to replace equipment and to modernise themselves.”
The policy paper from the Conservatives that proposes employee-owned co-operatives says they “will be able to decide on management structures, innovate to cut costs and improve the quality of service, and share any financial surpluses amongst the staff”.
However, it also explicitly states the government would not bail out enterprises if they fail.
It says: “Like any contract that an enterprise enters into, the management and staff have to be responsible for any poor performance, not the taxpayer.”
And it warned that after a specified contract period, enterprises will have to bid to renew the deal, potentially facing competition from other providers.
The proposal raises a major question over the future accountability of the sector. Will directors of social services be willing to contract out frontline services for which they still have ultimate responsibility? Sam Karim, a barrister at Kings Chambers, says: “Under the present law, local authorities cannot offload their legal obligation to protect vulnerable children and adults, so directors remain accountable for the provision of services.
“It’s going to take serious consultation and probably some amendments to current legislation for co-operatives to work in frontline services.”
Is the co-operative model suitable for frontline social work?
Some people have suggested that, while the co-operative model might work for longer term care provision such as home care, it isn’t suitable for frontline social work.
The government is currently piloting four GP-style social work practices in frontline children’s services in England.
In their policy paper on social work the Tories said they supported this model as a way to give social workers “greater ownership of their working conditions and professional practice”.
John Nawrockyi, director of adults and older people’s services at Greenwich Council and secretary of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services Workforce Development Network, has pointed out that directors might not want to delegate multi-agency work such as safeguarding to an independent organisation.
But Ceri Jones, head of policy for the Social Enterprise Coalition, argues that co-operatives can successfully tackle multi-agency working because they are not as tied up in bureaucracy.
“Co-operatives can look at a problem in a different way and provide a solution,” she says. “They have the ability to connect to different agencies, which means they can respond more quickly.”
However, she admits that the majority of social enterprises that have worked in social care to date are in home and residential care.
Some social care co-ops
● The Foster Care Co-operative, based in Malvern, Worcestershire, was set up in 1999 to provide an alternative to independent fostering agencies. Executive director Laurie Gregory says it works because of its “democratic ethos”.
● Sunderland Home Care Associates offers home care packages and care services. It employs more than 200 staff delivering over 4,000 hours of care per week.
● The Future Health and Social Care Association has been providing health and social care services to vulnerable adults, their families and carers in Birmingham since 1996.
Unions opposed to co-op plan