Bringing it all back home

The new leader of Scottish Labour, Richard Leonard, set out his stall at his party conference last weekend with a boldTM vision of a collectivist future, causing at least one political columnist to conclude that he “made Jeremy Corbyn look positively bourgeois.”

The New Statesman’s Chris Deerin (for it was he) may say that; I couldn’t possibly comment. What I am keen to do, though, is to analyse in a little more detail what Mr Leonard had to say about social care because from a voluntary sector perspective, I have quite sincerely never heard the like from any party leader since I first got into this game.

Mr Leonard was absolutely right about a number of things, not least the inherent contradiction of marrying a price-competitive multi-provider market system (social care) with a top-down directly-controlled and publicly-provided service (the NHS), changing neither of these things, and calling it integration.

Mr Leonard’s solution to this? “Scottish Labour’s policy going forward will not just be to support the principle of integrated health and social care – it will be to put that principle into practice. So we will prioritise bringing care contracts back in to our local authorities.”

Following his own logic, Mr Leonard might better have proposed the transfer of responsibility for social care to the NHS; however I suspect he was deterred by the prospect of having to deal with the consequent rage of his depleted yet clearly still influential ranks of Scottish Labour councillors, on whose toes he would be treading mightily by introducing such a measure. So let’s move on.

Mr Leonard noted with concern, again quite rightly, that private providers are withdrawing from the market. As it happens, voluntary sector providers are doing the same, but we are obviously not on his radar (and were thus not referenced, not even once, in any of these passages).

The solution he proposes is “the socialisation of ownership [of social care] because that way lies greater accountability and the better planning of these services.”

Now you could argue this point back and forth: does greater accountability lie that way, yes it does, no it doesn’t, and so on ad infinitum, but my issue with Mr Leonard’s proposal is that it doesn’t seem to be rooted in any real understanding of why providers are pulling out in the first place.

Providers themselves, on the contrary, are quite clear about that: they are telling local authorities that they can’t deliver a quality service within the funding envelope available, only for authorities to tell them in turn that this is a pity, but they can’t do much about it *because there isn’t any more money*.

And here’s the rub: Mr Leonard’s plans, I am fairly sure, would cost more money. But if more money were made available, and allocated to the providers who are now pulling out, they probably wouldn’t pull out, so the need to dream up a solution involving the socialisation of social care simply wouldn’t arise.

With respect to the workforce, Mr Leonard wants to “invest in making social care a profession with a career path and a decent wage to recognise the value of this critical work” and I for one am delighted to hear him state this so unequivocally. The thing is, it should be perfectly possible to do this without “bringing care staff back into local council employment”.

For a start, councils could be instructed to allocate more than a 5% weighting to Fair Work in social care tenders. Or to underwrite wage differentials in provider organisations that are currently creaking under the strain of the Living Wage commitment, since front line pay is now starting to overtake that of supervisors (not exactly a recipe for career advancement, in my book). Or to fund more than 1% – yes folks, that’s 1% – employer pension contribution for staff in commissioned organisations.

They’d need to do all that if services came back in-house, wouldn’t they, so why can’t they do it now? See above, with reference to the availability of *more money*. It’s curious policy-making to ignore the system that’s tripping people up, yet blame them for falling over.

Essentially, I can see absolutely nothing wrong with advancing public ownership as a core political position, especially if you’re a socialist; nor do I have any argument with a Labour politician exhibiting a distaste for the generation of private profit from public services. But if that’s your credo, then name it, and own it, because it is entirely disingenuous to present such an agenda as a solution to a separate set of problems that might more readily be solved in other ways.

If you’re not clear about your motivation in this respect, then you risk getting yourself caught up in all sorts of conundrums further down the line. For example, it just so happens that voluntary sector social care services achieve consistently higher gradings than their counterparts in either the private or the public sectors, which of course makes things a teensy bit awkward if you’re advancing an agenda to bring them back in-house that is in any way based on the idea that this will lead to quality improvement.

You’re also likely to have a bit of explaining to do around self-directed support. “In my view,” said Mr Leonard in his big speech, “in most cases local councils themselves may well be the best provider.”

Mr Leonard’s view is of course neither here nor there, since the views we should be listening to on such matters are those of the people we support, and their families. In my last blog, I had quite a lot to say about the way in which local councils abrogate unto themselves the power to determine who can best meet people’s needs, without ever having met those people or asked their opinion. Mr Leonard appears to be willing to go one step further, and to decide such things for himself, once and for all time as a matter of national policy.

There is much for Scottish Labour to reflect on, I think, as it develops its policy along the broad outlines set out by Mr Leonard on Saturday. From a purely voluntary sector perspective, there’s a couple of final – but critical – further points that the party might like to consider.

The most obvious one of course is that if Mr Leonard’s plans stem from a concern about private profit, then he can leave us out of it, because we don’t go in for that sort of thing.

More fundamentally perhaps, it occurs to me that when people talk about bringing social care “back” in-house, they appear to be working on the assumption that that’s where it all began; that there was a golden age when everything was delivered by councils, until the mean ol’ contract culture arrived and care was hived off to cheaper suppliers to save a quick buck.

I can’t speak for the private sector, but in the case of most care & support provided by voluntary organisations, neither these services nor the staff that work in them are, or ever have been, in public sector “ownership”. They were developed and fashioned by and in our sector, usually in partnership with public authorities, but more importantly with the people we support.

Once upon a time, these organisations were funded at levels that were almost indistinguishable from in-house services, but I can assure Mr Leonard of this: it wasn’t the voluntary sector that put a stop to that.

Annie Gunner Logan