People with Learning Disabilities Are Being Sold Off Like Slaves

Tendering for human services seems like: human beings are sold off, for profit, to the lowest bidder.

Sami Helle (pictured) is best known as the bass player for the Finnish punk rock band PKN, who recently performed the shortest ever song at the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest: "I always have to..." But Sami is also an eloquent spokesman for people with learning disabilities. Recently he spoke to the European Parliament and challenged the European Union's Public Procurement Directive because of the way it is being used to push people with disabilities around.

Sami said to the European Parliament:

We are obliged to surrender to the will of the strong. Big companies, cities and municipalities decide what is best for us. This is about power. Why do I feel a lack of power in my own life?

This is not just a Finnish problem. In fact, leading the way in the inappropriate use of procurement rules is - yes, you've guessed it - the United Kingdom. Ever since Mrs Thatcher chose the most extreme interpretation of EU rules, local councils have felt obliged to sell off services to the lowest bidder, re-selling them again when the contract comes to an end. Contractual tendering in the UK is higher than France and Germany put together.

Is any of this necessary?

Of course not. In fact, as Howells and Yapp have argued, this policy only undermines local leadership and community development; instead we waste local money on organisations with no roots in our communities. Councils should re-invest in their communities to solve their own problems, in their own way.

The worst aspect of this constant cycle of procurement and re-tendering is the damage it does to human lives. People with learning disabilities (and many others) have no control over this process. A support organisation loses its contract because another one promises that it will do the work for less money. Frontline salaries are cut, relationships are broken and people and families go through months of disruption.

Tendering for human services seems like a slave auction in reverse: human beings are sold off, for profit, to the lowest bidder.

Why do we let this happen?

Partly this system reflects the prejudice and low expectations that confront people with learning disabilities everyday. Instead of being treated as full human beings, with rights, people are treated as sub-humans, who can be bossed around and mistreated. This is why the kind of abuse discovered in places like Winterbourne View is so rife. When people live without power, they are more likely to be abused. When bureaucratic systems abuse people then staff are more likely to follow suit and join in the abuse.

Partly this is a failure of advocacy. There is no effective system of independent advocacy for families and people with learning disabilities. Instead many of the large service providers, competing for contracts, are the very charities who supposedly represent people with learning disabilities. There is a significant conflict of interest here.

In fact there is no good reason for any of this. Individuals can just make their own choice about who supports them. There have already been many small scale initiatives that show that this is not only effective it is even more efficient.

It is encouraging that this week - Learning Disability Week - Think Local Act Personal (TLAP) publishes new guidance to councils on contracting for flexible support. This guide makes clear that people should either get the chance to control their own budget (a direct payment) or be supported to pick a service provider who will manage their budget for them.

If councils choose to go down this path then it could be the end of the tendering and re-tendering of social care services. People would be treated as human beings - in charge of their own fate - getting the kind of flexible support that helps them be full citizens. Hopefully councils and service providers will take up this challenge - reject tendering and embrace human rights for people with learning disabilities.

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