Social Work Practice Pilots and Social Enterprises: Social Care’s Trojan Horses

The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers, who in 1844 founded the early Coop movement, would be the first to argue that David Cameron’s ‘big society’ has no right to claim heritage from early forms of nineteenth century mutualism and working class cooperative societies.  Those Social Enterprises (SEs) that have been developed in the last 10 years to run NHS contracts and more recently the Social Work Practices (SWPs) pilots have developed not from any twenty first century people’s movement but instead as smokescreens behind which lies a cuts agenda. They are also designed to break up public services, place them into financial insecurity with short-term contracts, and then throw them into the hands of private equity companies.
SEs and SWPs have their origins in the last New Labour government.  In 2001 the then Department for Trade and Industry set up the Social Enterprise Unit to promote their use across the economy. They have been steadily pushed, having seen several employee owned SEs established, usually in the form of management buy-outs, to run primary health services.  The current Con-Dem government has embraced them with enthusiasm and wants SEs to compete for council contracts to weaken the influence and erode the ability of councils to provide direct services in Adults and Children’s social care.

SEs are hard to define but are essentially a diverse fusion of voluntary – third sector – charitable organisations run firmly on a ‘business’ model.  There exists an elaborate ‘social enterprise’ discourse which combines the language and discipline of capitalist commerce with altruistic aims to ‘do good’, meet social need and have what proponents call social impact.  They talk about social entrepreneurism and social capital.  Examples include companies who run a service for a ‘good cause’ or to meet social needs (e.g. a rural bus service or a children’s centre) that will re-invest ‘profit’ back into the business rather than distribute to owners and shareholders.  At present there are no SEs in social care but Birmingham City Council, Swindon, and Blackburn and Darwin are considering establishing them for their entire Adult social work services.  
SWPs emerged from the 2008 Children and Young Persons Act.  Proponents argue that allowing social workers to set up private practices will reduce bureaucracy and increase professional autonomy. For social workers and service users alike this might seem  attractive but a close reading of the small print reveals much of the financial risk being transferred onto social workers, contracts being limited to annual cycles, new layers of bureaucracy with up to 37 different performance outcomes for each child, and the replacement of control by management hierarchies with control by contract.  Currently there are 4 SWP pilot schemes in Kent, Hillingdon, Staffordshire and Liverpool and a further 10 planned (4 in children’s services and 6 in Adult services) including Birmingham and Shropshire.

The difficulty councils face is that there is little enthusiasm in local authorities and much resistance from social workers.  In Norfolk the council thought social workers would want to become mini entrepreneurs but their sales pitch failed to generate interest and the proposal was abandoned.  In Sandwell social workers were quick to see that the proposal was effectively a form of privatisation and foster carers were furious children had not been told about the scheme which was eventually also abandoned.  Of the 6 additional schemes announced since the start of 2011, Coventry, Warwickshire, South Tyneside and Lincolnshire have all pulled out having been given tight timescales to develop schemes by government and having looked at the considerable financial risks involved.

You can download the SWAN briefing on Social Work Practices below.

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