The UK has had a policy of competitive tendering for public services since the 1980s. There is no evidence to support this policy - but plenty of evidence that it has a severe negative impact on social care and human rights.
At the heart of this policy is a set of policy rules, set by central government, forcing local government to tender for public services - effectively selling off disabled people and their support workers at the lowest possible cost. Every few years people are put out to tender, relationships torn up and people’s security and rights overturned.
Government calls these rules EU Procurement Rules, however this is misleading. Almost every European country excludes social care from competitive tendering; but the UK Government falsely blames the EU for its own policy.
Competitive tendering became central to all social care (support for people with disabilities and the elderly) after the 1992 NHS & Community Care Act. After this local government had to become a ‘purchaser’ of services, while the private and non-profit sectors became ‘providers’. This policy has created many problems - each of which are getting worse:
1. Lowering costs by cutting frontline salaries - When competing for funding the easiest way to win a contract is to reduce the salaries of frontline staff. However salaries for senior managers have rapidly increased, so the level of income inequality inside organisations is now extreme. For example, the CEO of a charity might be earning £175,000, whilst frontline staff are on minimum wages. Social care has also seen rapid growth in precarious work: zero-hours or short-term contracts. Things have got so bad that many charities can no longer afford to meet minimum legal standards for pay and have been lobbying government to be exempted from these standards.
2. Increased compliance and reduced advocacy - In the past charities acted as advocates for people and for important causes; however today they are too reliant on government funding and most provide no meaningful advocacy. This failure has contributed to deep cuts in social care - 700,000 people have lost support since 2009, a cut of over 40%. This was one of the major reasons why the United Nations recently called the UK Government for using its austerity programme a “human catastrophe” for disabled people.
3. Toxic culture of mistrust and regulation - This process has also created a bureaucratic systems that erodes the quality of the relationships within and between organisations. Anything too warm or human now seems suspicious and contrary to the principles of tendering; only bureaucratic processes are trusted. The spirit of social care is now entirely hostile to its purpose.
4. The death of creativity - Before the era of competitive tendering most innovative work was carried out in the voluntary sector and it was common for charities to cooperate with each other and with government. But today’s charities compete with each other for work, just like businesses, and they fear cooperation. Competitive tendering creates organisational chaos, but it is fundamentally conservative.
After 30 years this system is now approaching collapse. There is a return to institutional practices and the collapse of meaningful choice and control as organisations fold or merge.
But the biggest cost of this system is the opportunity cost: for 30 years we have missed the opportunity to do the right thing, to focus on creating inclusive and welcoming communities. Instead of seeing people with disabilities as leaders in the transformation of our communities we have wasted our time: wrapping some people in over-regulated and under-funded services while leaving many others isolated and unsupported.
The alternative is clear enough:
- Independent living - Treat people as citizens and ensure they have the entitlement to support, which is their human right.
- Community sourcing - Encourage inclusive communities by respecting and supporting community groups and citizens.
- Local support - Ensure that local communities have the necessary structures, expertise and information to develop local solutions.
Finland can show us the way. It is one of the few countries who, like the UK, had included social care in the competitive tendering system. But now a mass campaign - Not For Sale - led by disabled people - is forcing the Government to rethink its policy. Disabled people should not be put up for sale, and be sold off for the lowest price. It is time to resist this toxic policy.
A longer version of this article can be found on the Centre for Welfare Reform’s website and you can join the group discussing the possibility of launching a UK campaign on Facebook.