Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Big Offer?

To Millbank Tower and the Third Sector Summit with the Tories.

Although I obviously struggle a bit with the whole `Eton Rifles' thing (my issue, not theirs!), what makes this day interesting for me is that I actually agree with most of what they are setting out. They get it. They seem to understand how producer interest in the public sector really does work against the most vulnerable. There's a healthy impatience with the absurdities of the public sector. A much bigger philosophical embrace of civil society than even the better Labour Ministers could manage. Indeed, their `Big Society' idea is actually rather a good one - wish my lot had thought of it. One that they should be ramming home but, strangely, are not. Whatever folk in this sector think of the Tory-messengers, I suspect many agree wholeheartedly with the message.

So what of the day? Well, their refreshingly normal Treasury guy Phillip Hammond was eloquent and precise about how we need to attack public sector debt - and public sector productivity. He sees the sector as an ally in the search for value, along, I am sure,with the private sector. He promises radical early action to improve commissioning, open public services to competition and declutter commissioning processes . Odd though it is for me to say, I would feel safe in this man’s hands.

Francis Maude, though sufficiently rich to probably buy down a reasonable chunk of the deficit, manages to sound convincing about how it all works at the front-line for people leaving jail. Rather than meeting the drug-dealer at the gates, better, he says, they be met by a social firm like Blue Sky offering them a bed and a job. Blue Sky boast a 25% reoffending rate compared to the usual 80%. Although I am as mystified as most people by the gyroscopics of SROI (Social Return on Investment), this not a hard calculation to make.

Five quick `one minute’ examples of the third sector offer follow. Mick May of Blue Sky being, without reading it all out, easily the most gripping. A couple of other good ones. Others less compelling - why do some CEOs in our sector feel the need to sound like management consultants?

These were followed by a number of `panels' involving different Tory Shadows. Mine was on social care/health and was kicked off by Simon Antrobus, the very bright young CEO of Addaction. He made the case for early sector involvement in shaping service-specs - so that what's commissioned isn't just a pale version of the public sector. Couldn't agree more.

I had been asked to focus on personalization. I was lucky. The day before I had been for a walk in the park with my friend Gill and her profoundly disabled daughter Laura who, six months after her residential care placement broke down (£140k PA – dodgy private provider) is now back with Gill. Until we involved her MP, Councillor and the CEO of the local authority, Lauren's case was lost in the mad machine of local authority inertia, arse-covering and dysfunction.

The County Council CEO’s involvement, surprisingly enough, has speeded things up and an indicative sum for a personal budget is due in May (expected amount £70-£100k - big saving). However, it is unlikely that the full amount will be spent on industrial-style social care at all. Once people have budgets they tend to spend it on accessing the things they want in their lives (friends, pubs, cinema, the local park), rather than bog-standard care-home stuff, be from the public, private or voluntary sector.

My message to Andrew Lansley – the Tory Shadow was that Lauren's case is what you get when you leave a policy in mid-air, as Labour have done, with no legally enforceable right to a personal budget. We must immediately legislate to get rid the misnamed `Fair Access to Care’ – which keeps control of resources with the commissioners and providers – and replace it with the `RAS’ – the Resource Allocation System designed by Simon Duffy and InControl - a system now used in some LA areas which has been found to save money and improve outcomes.

Andrew Lansley was actually very good. He has been Tory Shadow since 2003, he’s a GP by profession and knows the brief. He started the job, he said, as someone incredibly supportive of the NHS. Although it is possible to find a number of quite contradictory Tory health policies in recent years, what Lansley said today I agreed with: GP fundholding, a stronger purchaser-provider split, a split in the budget between the NHS and public health and an opening up of the NHS to alternative providers - including the third sector. Not the whole answer but a good start. He described the NHS, interestingly, as a “secret garden”, with its own mores, language and non-invented-here syndrome that made it inpenetrable to outsiders. Perhaps an observation that says it all really.

The next session was on education. Here the meeting of minds was less apparent. The sector as a whole is, I fear is far more statist on this issue than it is, say, on health or social care.

The Tories, to their credit, condemned the local authority stranglehold which I see with my own eyes as a County Councillor. Even here in Tory Suffolk, the Council’s writ runs through its schools. Everything is controlled by a bossy and expensive bureaucracy which Gordon Brown himself would be proud of. How the Tories nationally will get these free schools through local government I don’t know.

Big messages? Well, there was a real meeting of minds, I felt, on what kinds of improvement was needed. And, given the clear political gulf between the people there and the Shadow Cabinet, there was a surprising level of fellow-feeling on the big issues.

Three things came out for me. Firstly, in the aggressive search for productivity there will be opportunities for low-cost, high impact solutions. We seem up for that, which we have to be. Innovation. Value. Risk. We're there. Secondly, there is a vital recognition that the public `secret gardens' have been privileged at the expense of other sectors and that this lot are more `on our side' in terms of their worldview than Labour were. Thirdly, the Tories now seem on-side with the need for a proper capitalisation of the sector. A necessity if payment by results becomes the norm.

Am I heartened? Yes and no. Yes because I basically agree with them. No because I think you need utter determination to see this stuff through. A programme which isn't going to be blown all over the place. A leader who isn't going to be run by the media or his MPs. My suspicion too is that the majority or political deal with the Lib Dems - won't be there to see through the necessary reform (imagine all those newly elected MPs in marginals defending their local hospitals) and we'll just be left with Treasury-driven budget-slicing, which would leave us with 1990s style public services with less money in them.

That would be depressing - but as a `glass half-full' man, I wouldn't bet against it.


watercottageblogs said...

Hi really interesting commentary. I really feel that the most vulnerable in our society have just not received the support they should from 13 years of a Labour government. Did you get a sense of whether the Tories will be brave enough/radical enough to really tackle the benefits system if they do get into government? The current system leaves people to languish on benefits and wastes money that could be redirected to where the greatest need is.

Craig Dearden-Phillips said...

Thanks Watercottage. I think there are elements within the Tories who are brave enough (Phillip Hammond for example) but I suspect they will be hampered by their backbenchers and by their undoubted sensitivity to the media. They look and feel like a poorer version of Labour in 97. As such I suspect they may be more timid than they need to be, esp if on a thin majority.