Ian Hood: Disability work tender not right for everyone

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Edinburgh’s Engine Shed is now in the process of closing and will wind up over the next six months. But are other services facing a similar fate?

The Engine Shed provided organic bread, tofu and other food stuffs, ran a popular cafe and well-used conference facilities. But its main job was to provide training opportunities for 30 young people with learning disabilities, autism and other special needs. Over a three-year placement these young people had plenty of time to get ready for the world of work.

The city council backed its operations with a grant to pay for the staff that provided the training. But the value of this grant had fallen over time.

The Engine Shed was getting less money in 2013 than it did in 2003. Many other organisations have the same problems as local authority funding is squeezed.

In 2013, the council announced a new plan. Instead of just funding the six Edinburgh organisations which helped people with disabilities to get job, a competitive tender would see a single service start in April 2015.

This would be based on a “supported employment” model – ie, where individuals are placed in work and then given support. The council would move its support away from training opportunities.

At the time many people thought this was short-sighted and did not take into account the differing needs of young people with special needs. So thousands signed petitions, wrote to councillors and were able to win a year’s reprieve for the service.

But over the last 12 months, despite the fine words and intentions of some councillors, the policy of the council didn’t change.

It continued to pursue the single approach to helping people into work and all the special employment services were put out to competitive tender in May. Payment to the winning organisation or consortium would be by the number of jobs achieved.

The Engine Shed tried to join up with one of the consortia but its share of a successful bid would have been only a quarter of its existing grant. This would have been a pyrrhic victory leading to closure in months.

The Engine Shed management tried various things to keep going. Council staff made various suggestions to help. There was even specialist advice to improve the business but nothing was proposed to end the long-term pressure on funding.

The Engine Shed couldn’t make changes quickly enough to beat the business decline from the recession. Reluctantly the management decided to close and to examine new opportunities to “rebirth” the service in future.

But this whole episode has raised a number of concerns.

There are elements in the council’s process of “policy rush”. A new policy is decided and suddenly it’s the only show in town. “We now need to support people after they get a job and not train them first. So that will be the only thing going.”

The problem is the people who lose out are those furthest from the job market, those with little experience and skill who need help. Council staff could have split the funding into two sections – one for training and one for supported employment. But in the rush to this new policy, no-one stopped to ask ‘what if this isn’t right for everyone?’

The new payment by results policy will also put pressure on the new organisations to get more people into work. Seventy per cent of the funding will be linked to job numbers – only payable after jobs are secured. The pressure will be on to achieve success by helping those closest to the job market. Those who benefited from the Engine Shed will be at the end of the queue.

And tendering for social care services means that organisations who want to win have to put in a competitive bid.

“Give back” is a term which has sprung up for how this works. The bidding firm works out what it could do for the total money and decides how much to “give back” and reduces its service by five to ten per cent.

This lower bid has a better chance of winning. Organisations reason that it’s better to have a reduced service than none but this means that the service is reduced in scope and intensity. Instead of a properly planned service with agreed standards, we have the market deciding the support of our most vulnerable.

Finally, this leads to a lack of choice. The Scottish Government’s new policy of Self Directed Support is meant to mean choice for those that use services. A single tendered contract means that people can get only the service the council has chosen.

The question no-one knows the answer to yet is how many other services are also suffering from a gradual restriction on council funding, competitive tendering and “give back”? Will they go the same way as The Engine Shed?

• Ian Hood is coordinator at The Learning Disability Alliance Scotland