By David Bicknell
The Cabinet Office has encouraged would-be mutual and social enterprises to see the government’s plans to open up public services as a positive move that yields new opportunities despite a flagship mutual reportedly losing out on a major contract to a commercial organisation for NHS services.
The Financial Times reported yesterday that Assura Medical has been named as preferred bidder for a five- year contract worth about £90m a year for community health services in Surrey, beating a bid by Central Surrey Health, the flagship social enterprise that runs services in the neighbouring area.
A Cabinet Office spokesman was quoted as saying: “This is not the end for Central Surrey Health; they continue to provide critical services for the people of Surrey. Across the public sector we have started to see the emergence of a new wave of mutuals.
“The government has ambitious plans to support front-line staff who want to form mutual organisations and take control of the services they provide. We are working to ensure that all organisations bid for contracts on a level playing field. We are currently conducting a listening exercise on the Open Public Services white paper, it’s vital that mutual organisations contribute to the discussion.”
The government wants to see the fledgling mutual and social enterprise sector grow to encourage a million staff to leave the public sector and sell services back to local government and the NHS.
In a press release issued by Social Enterprise UK, Peter Holbrook, the organisation’s chief executive encouraged the government to create a financial level playing field and give mutual and social enterprises the chance to gain a foothold in the commercial world:
“If Central Surrey Health, the government’s flagship mutual social enterprise, which has demonstrated considerable success in transforming health services and increasing productivity can’t win, what does this say for the future of the mutuals agenda?
“Central Surrey Health reinvests all the profits it makes locally. It is difficult to imagine how Assura, with shareholders expecting a financial return, could do more to benefit people in Surrey.
“It is not enough for government to open up markets; it needs to create fair markets that benefit society. Some of the financial criteria used in contracts create an unequal playing field in which social enterprises are unable to compete because they may not have the same financial backing as private sector providers. Unless swift action is taken to address this we will see social enterprises and mutuals lose out to the private sector.
“Public sector workers will be understandably anxious about spinning out from the NHS and setting up a social enterprise on the back of this news. The government needs to take action to reassure them that they will not be operating in markets weighted against them.
It has been argued by unions that mutualisation hides a privatisation agenda with mutuals at risk of losing out to commercial operators as contracts come up for renewal. Central Surrey’s own contract is reported to be up for renewal next year.
Central Surrey Health was the UK’s first social enterprise to leave the NHS and set up as an employee-owned business four years ago. Central Surrey Health is contracted to deliver community nursing and therapy services on behalf of the NHS and other organisations (e.g. Surrey County Council) to the 280,000 population of central Surrey. It is owned by the nurses and therapists it employs, who each own a 1p, not-for-dividend share.
It has been selected by the Cabinet Office to help mentor employee-owned organisations coming out of the public sector. Twelve fledgling public service spin-offs have been chosen by the Cabinet Office to be ‘Pathfinders’ for the rest of the public sector. As mentors, Central Surrey Health will work with and support staff on Pathfinder projects to help them develop sustainable, efficient and pioneering employee-led services. Last November it was also named as the Prime Minister’s first Big Society Award winner.