Public Services Management: A case for social services, not social workers: Westminster City Council is subjecting a hitherto sacrosanct area to the full rigours of the market. Paul Gosling reports

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The Independent Online
WESTMINSTER City Council, London, is constantly in the headlines. Its former leader, Dame Shirley Porter, is expected to be criticised in an eagerly awaited District Audit report investigating allegations of gerrymandering of marginal wards by the alleged selective sale of council housing.

Lady Porter's replacement, David Weeks, resigned last month, under pressure, after a massive row with the managing director, Merv Montacute. Months of dispute over management became further inflamed when Mr Montacute organised a raid on the leader's office to establish whether requests for donations to the Conservative Party had been printed on council stationery.

A new leader, Miles Young, was appointed last week, just five weeks after being plucked from the back benches to become chair of the contracts committee. Speaking to the Independent after his election, Mr Young agreed that his great advantage was that he had a new pair of hands on the wheel.

In the midst of such drama, a policy revolution at Westminster has passed by almost unnoticed. Social services, previously excluded from the commercialisation process, are now to be subjected to the rigours of the market place. There has been a purchaser/provider split initiated; much of the contract side will be tendered out; and in-house provision will be through business units. And for good measure, Westminster has virtually abolished the social worker.

The role of social workers has itself been split into purchaser and provider functions. For example, mental health services, operating as a business unit since last October, are now to operate within three district teams. Each of these will employ, as well as a team manager and two senior care managers, some 10 care managers, all qualified social workers, whose responsibilities are to buy in care for service users. The function of social workers is now quantified and bought in from providers, or disregarded as inappropriate.

Ann Windiate, social services director, explains the reasoning for the new approach. 'The role of social work has never been entirely clear, and there has been a problem of public credibility for social workers.' Care managers, says Ms Windiate, will make the role of social services more explicit, and open up rights of redress if not performed properly.

In Kent, Ms Windiate's previous authority, a survey had been conducted of service users which found what they wanted was practical support, such as home help. They wanted social services, not social workers, says Ms Windiate. 'Social workers are not highly thought of by the public. There is not a high demand for the inter-personal skills that social workers spend a lot of time on.'

As if to emphasis Ms Windiate's point, Labour's spokesperson on social services at Westminster, Karen Buck, indicates sympathy for the approach. 'Social workers have suffered problems of not knowing their role,' Ms Buck says. Labour is more worried about the market testing of social services provision, such as old people's homes, children's nurseries, meals on wheels, and equipment for people with disabilities. The only social services not, as yet, subject to tendering are day care for the physically disabled, foster care and children's residential homes.

Last week's committee meeting approved the plans for market testing, and agreed a short-list of tenderers from which contractors will be chosen by the end of the year. Significantly, three NHS trusts are keen to win contracts.

The interest from the trusts fits in with Westminster's vision of the future of social services. It sees the integration of health and social services as key in establishing a better understood and more seamless provision. It has been agreed in principle to create a joint purchasing arrangement with Kingston, Chelsea and Westminster Health Authority. This will, Ms Windiate feels, resolve the 'bizarre' dividing line between responsibilities of the two bodies, dealing with those services 'on the cusp' of the two authorities' responsibilities. It should also assist in creating a strong client side, addressing the problem of contractors being more powerful than purchasers, which has afflicted Westminster and others.

Of Westminster's pounds 365m spending budget, almost half, pounds 175m, is out on contract. Staffing levels have been cut from 9,500 to 7,000, with savings claimed of pounds 9m per year, or 16 per cent per contract. Currently, there are 38 services out on contract, all but one as a result of voluntary competitive tendering. Three of the contracts are with management buy-outs, which are encouraged by the authority. Another 22 services came up for approval for tendering last week - constituting over 850 pages of committee papers - with a further 28 services to be reviewed under the authority's Best Practice Market Review, which determines the size and shape of future contracts.

There are 29 services where market testing has been put in abeyance for the foreseeable future. These services are organised in business units to create a more commercial culture. Libraries are one of these, considered inappropriate for market testing because of the absence of any external market. Officers say that it is too risky to put environmental health and consumer protection out of house. Development control is also retained internally; officers say this is because of the possibility of corruption, with potential contractors most likely to be estate agents who would be subject to conflicts of interest. Mr Young, the new council leader, takes a different view, pointing to legislation preventing its outsourcing, which the council wants changed.

Mr Young uses the word 'catalyser' to describe the shape of Westminster to come. 'The authority of the future will be very much more of a catalysing organisation, that acts to get things done, and doesn't take as its prescriptive view that everything has to be provided by itself internally,' he says. 'That is a long way from the old Nicholas Ridley view of an organisation that met once a year to award contracts, but it is also clearly a long way from a lot of local authorities today that pay lip service to tendering out. What we have in mind is an authority where as much as is sensible and possible is put out to test in the market place.'

What is left, Mr Young says, will have to be restructured, but by the process of evolution. Even Westminster is not about to fade away to nothing. Mr Young observes: 'I don't think it can get as lean as some of the more extreme philosophers and think-tanks of the 1980s imagined.'