The Conservatives have been consistent in expressing their desire for public sector workers to take control of and own the services they deliver by setting up mutuals or co-operatives.
Even before the 2010 general election the Tories had promoted the mutual model. In August 2010, by then in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, they introduced a new “pathfinder mutuals” programme to encourage public sector staff to take control of their services, as well as the Mutuals Information Service to provide advice.
This month’s Open Public Services white paper has added more flesh to their plans, but UNISON is not convinced that mutuals will truly empower frontline workers – and is concerned that the government’s slick promotion of the model has concealed its potential pitfalls.
Helga Pile, the union’s national officer for social care, says: “People are rightly suspicious that this is being pushed so heavily at a time when cuts are being sought.”
Pile says there needs to be full discussion about the risks faced by workers keen to establish mutuals.
For example, she points out that mutuals may have to retender for contracts down the line and stand the chance of losing out to other organisations, placing the job security of mutual members at risk.
A UNISON report on mutuals warns that, if the model becomes widespread, it is “unlikely” that public sector staff transferring to mutuals will be given extended contract guarantees, or retain their terms and conditions and pensions.
“Instead we will see a rapid intensification of competition for the contracts on offer,” it adds. “With such competition will come an inevitable pressure on costs, primarily staffing costs – jobs, pay and conditions.”
Pile is also concerned that the move to mutuals may be driven by local authorities looking to reduce service costs, not by workers seeking autonomy, and could be introduced with limited consultation.
This was highlighted by UNISON last year when it opposed Sandwell Council’s interest in setting up one of the social work practice pilots for looked-after children, a plan that was later dropped by the council.
Pile believes the extensive restructuring that would be required by a shift to mutuals would “suck up a lot of resources” that could otherwise be used in delivering social care or removing bureaucracy from existing local authority services.
UNISON also says that, if the government is truly interested in empowering frontline workers, it should extend the mutuals programme to staff within private sector organisations that deliver services on behalf of the public sector.
Why shouldn’t these workers be given the same “right to request” to take over the delivery of services, the union asks?
If the government is serious about empowering frontline workers, this is something it should also consider – particularly at a time of high-profile private sector failings in social care, at Southern Cross and Winterbourne View, for example.
Case study: Sunderland Home Care Associates
Margaret Elliott knows better than most the benefits that an employee-owned social enterprise can offer to staff and service users alike.
She set up the Little Women co-operative shop and nursery in Sunderland in 1976, and in 1994 launched Sunderland Home Care Associates, which is now owned by almost 400 care workers. The organisation’s offshoot, Care and Share Associates, also has franchise home-care operations in Calderdale, North Tyneside, Newcastle and Manchester.
Staff are automatically given a stake in the ownership of Sunderland Home Care Associates once they have completed their six-month probationary period. Elliott says this stake in the success of the organisation encourages commitment and lower staff turnover – only 4% per year.
Elliott continues to advocate the employee-ownership model, saying: “I believe it leads to a better-quality service because the workforce will be much more satisfied and listened to, and people will act on their recommendations.”
However, she stresses that social care staff considering setting up mutuals should be aware of the extra training and support they will require on issues including the regulatory framework, health and safety, employment law, and PAYE.
“It’s no good trying to rush things,” she advises. “It takes time and resources.”
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The Open Public Services white paper also outlines plans for a taskforce to push employee ownership across the public sector, led by Julian Le Grand, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics; and a £10m Mutuals Support Programme to be launched this autumn.
The Pathfinder Mutuals include:
• The Department of Health’s London and South East learning disability team forming a regional community interest company
• Hammersmith and Fulham children’s services exploring new models of delivery with staff, possible commercial partners and neighbouring local authorities
• NHS employees forming a social enterprise to provide services for homeless people in Leicester
• Integration of community health and adult social services in Swindon into a co-operative