County Council staff numbers have been slashed over the last 7 years, leaving the council’s learning disability support service as one of the largest single functions left in the council’s direct control. As such, it has been singled out for outsourcing by the Conservative administration that runs the county council. Initial consultation with service users and their families indicated that they wished to see the service remain part of the county council. This wasn’t the answer that Somerset Conservatives wanted to hear so they asked it again, only this time employing ‘facilitators’ to help deliver the correct answer, which they duly did. Now, the preferred option was to outsource the service to a cuddly-sounding ‘Social Enterprise Vehicle.’
The County Council then set about finding bidders interested in running this enterprise. The exercise yielded only one bidder. In my view that’s all the indication you need that there is effectively no market in this type of service. Would you employ a tradesman on your home having received only one price? But, being ideologically wedded to outsourcing everything, the county council pressed on, agreeing terms with the single bidder, and making extravagant promises to the staff that their terms and conditions would be protected in the new company, which is due to take over in April 2017.
Early on, concerns started to emerge that the social enterprise (Dimensions UK Ltd) might not be as cuddly as had been billed. It was discovered that any profit generated by the enterprise would not be saved for use in Somerset but would be distributed throughout the new company’s other operations in the UK. Now, we discover that those promises to protect the staff might be worthless. Dimensions UK Ltd has issued a letter to Somerset County Council indicating that it intends to make a large number of the staff redundant and degrade everyone else’s terms and conditions, including pay. If the county council agrees to these measures, some staff will end up earning barely more than the minimum wage and less than someone stacking tins of beans in Lidl. A highly-motivated and well-trained workforce has been misled throughout an exercise to outsource to a private contractor. Given what we now know, would the service users and their families still back the ‘Social Enterprise Vehicle’? Somehow, I doubt it.
It’s time for Somerset’s Conservative administration to stop this ideologically-driven outsource and reconsider. There are elections just three months away and such a decision, affecting vulnerable people as well as so large a part of the council’s workforce ought to be deferred to what could potentially be a new administration.