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Labour challenges Tories over market testing of social care contract

West Sussex County Council’s Labour group has strongly challenged a thinly-evidenced decision to continue with a market-led approach to a crucial adults’ social care service, amid concerns that its current provider is under-performing.

The Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care and Health, Peter Catchpole (Con, Holbrook) recently published a decision to put the Community Reablement Service out for tender once again to private contractors. 

  • Reablement is a service most commonly needed to support customers following a change in ability, possibly caused by a medical condition. The intention of Reablement is to help residents retain or regain their independence, and to prevent or reduce the need for longer term support.  It can be provided following a community based assessment or upon their discharge from hospital.
  • Controversially, the ‘community reablement’ contract (which rehabilitates vulnerable adults back into their home after leaving hospital) was originally awarded five years ago to Essex Cares Ltd (ECL).
  • At that time there was no evidence of a healthy market for the service: only ECL bid for it. It was outsourced in 2012 on the flimsiest of evidence.
  • The current council report which accompanied the Cabinet member’s decision shows no evidence of any market change.
  • Labour councillors are concerned by the report’s findings: there has been a large underspend and significant contract underperformance by ECL.
  • The report claims that by going again to the market to provide the services under a new contract, this will ‘lead to more stability’ and that other options – including bringing the service back into direct council control – will be ‘destabilising’. Yet it provides no evidence to support these claims.
  • The report also alleges that bringing the service back in-house would make it more difficult to integrate with complementary NHS services in the future, but again doesn’t give any evidence to justify this assertion.

The proposals have therefore been challenged (or ‘called-in’) by all six members of the West Sussex County Council Labour Group, to allow councillors enough time to thoroughly scrutinise the report’s conclusions and give them the opportunity to ensure the best solution is found on behalf of the users of the service, and council tax payers.

Members of the Health and Adult Social Care Select Committee at the county council, who scrutinise the decisions of the Cabinet Member, have agreed to examine the proposals at a meeting to be held on 18th January.

On behalf of the Labour group, Labour County Councillor Michael Jones (Southgate and Crawley Central) outlined the concerns:

“This is a Tory council on auto-pilot, ignoring the experiences of the past and in severe danger of repeating past mistakes unnecessarily.  This report does not tell us any of the actions taken to remedy ECL’s poor performance, how effective those actions might have been and how much they have cost the council.

“We’re not told how much the council has spent procuring or managing the contract. It does not compare these costs against the possible extra cost of bringing it back in-house, such as improved staff terms and conditions. It’s the deterioration of these due to outsourcing that has prevented the service running at maximum capacity in the first place.

“This decision has been rushed. Two alternative options were ruled out because there was supposedly no time to thoroughly assess their credibility.

“It’s yet another example of this Tory council’s inability to effectively procure high quality services or write rigorous contracts. Even its own internal audit service could only give it ‘limited assurance’ for commissioning in 2015 and 70% of that assurance had still to be cleared in June last year.

“We continue to lack faith in the current structure and staffing levels to procure and manage contracts.

“We insist councillors are given ample time to scrutinise and discuss this report before any final decision is taken to re-tender the reablement contract. We want the current decision withdrawn until we see the results of market testing so the council can make a fully-informed decision.  We must decide on evidence, not assumptions that the current failed approach can be made to work and that Council-provided services could do no better.”

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