Tessa Jowell expresses support for mutuals in social care

Better known as the Olympics minister, former social worker Tessa Jowell tells Jeremy Dunning of her enthusiasm for the mutual model for social care delivery

Labour is preparing to unveil manifesto plans to expand the role of co-operatives and mutuals within social care, under the leadership of Cabinet Office minister and former social worker Tessa Jowell.

It aims to produce a discussion paper before the dissolution of parliament – expected on or before 6 April – outlining the concept of “modern mutualism” and how it could work in social care.

Mutuals – organisations owned by and run for the benefit of their members – are not new, and include building societies, credit unions, employee-owned businesses such as John Lewis and NHS foundation trusts. In social care, they include Sunderland Home Care Associates, a provider owned by its staff, and the government’s social work practice pilot in Staffordshire, which is owned by the social workers who provide its services to looked-after children and care leavers.

Jowell describes this as a “mutual moment” in that the public mood is moving towards smaller and more responsive services that meet what they want and that allows them to be more in control.

She also links it to the public’s reaction to the banking and political expenses crises, adding: “People want more transparency, they want to be more in control.”

However, she admits there needs to be more explanation on what mutualism will mean for them.

She says it is too early to set limits on the potential to expand mutualism in social care, but accepts it is particularly suited to delivering services for older people in their own homes. “The complex nature of the care and support that will be necessary for an increasing number of elderly people lends itself to the rather smaller-scale, highly reactive and flexible approach that characterises mutuals,” she says.

This could include an organisation owned by the users themselves and staffed by their carers. For example, it could involve a group of older people who pool their direct payments to acquire economies of scale.

Innovative work along these lines is being undertaken in Oldham where local people have received support to establish mutuals and social enterprises to provide small-scale services for care users.

Jowell also believes that mutual organisations can be more effective. In a speech last December, she pointed to how Sunderland Home Care Associates had an annual staff turnover of 5%, compared with a sector average of more than 20%.

At the same time, she announced details of a Commission on Ownership, which started work last month. Chaired by writer and commentator Will Hutton, it is looking at the relationship between ownership of public service and corporate organisations and social fairness.

Jowell says the government is also “at the beginning of discussions” with local authorities and trade unions about rolling out the concept amid concerns about employment rights and risk management, but says it is “optimistic” for the future. Lambeth, for instance, is looking at becoming a “co-operative council” by setting up a commission to look at how the public can play a greater role in running local services.

Labour is not the only one of the main parties looking at expanding mutualism and co-operatives. Last month, the Conservatives announced plans to give public sector workers, including social workers, the right to form employee-owned co-operatives to take over the services they deliver.

Unsurprisingly, with a general election weeks away, Jowell is dismissive of Tory moves on to what is traditional Labour territory. “They are not even at the starting line on developing their policy, having the arguments about policy, taking the debate out, being fearless in taking on debate,” she says. “They are not even on the first square.”

Tessa Jowell: Fom Mind to westminster

Before her election to parliament in 1992, Tessa Jowell’s career was in psychiatric social work, eventually becoming assistant director of mental health charity Mind.

After Labour was elected to government in 1997, she became public health minister in the Department of Health and then worked as a minister for employment and welfare reform in the then Department for Education and Employment from 1999 to 2001.

She was appointed minister for the Olympics and paymaster-general in June 2007.

Read about the Conservatives’ plans for co-operatives at www.communitycare.co.uk/113938

This article is published in the 18 March 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Mutual appreciation”

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