Spotlight -

Have you ever had a nightmare where something truly terrible unfolds in front of you and everyone just lets it happen?

I bet we’ve all also had times in our lives where our inability to make a decision has led to a situation where not making any decision becomes a decision itself, usually with dire consequences too.

Today, I want to share the story of the national 218 women’s justice service aimed at addressing cycles of reoffending and suicide rates by those caught in a justice system loop -  and the learnings I, as Chair of Turning Point Scotland, am processing from it. I want to do this not to vent my frustration at what I see as an injustice that will have grave and predictable consequences for the people and communities the service supported, but because I see the story of its closure as an ominous harbinger of a potential new era in Scottish Social care.

So, what happened with 218, isn’t it simply another victim of budget cutbacks where brutal realities mean ‘nice to have’ services are suddenly vulnerable?  No. In reality, where we have arrived has little to do with money, but has everything to do with the nightmare scenario I opened with. Nobody seems to want this closure, nobody supports it or has ever categorised the service as anything other than essential, including the first minister who told Parliament that he knew the service well, one he “valued very, very, highly.”

And nobody will admit ownership of the closure decision. Over my entire career, every organisation I have ever worked with lives or dies by the effectiveness of their governance to avoid arriving at undesired and uncontrolled outcomes. Avoiding decisions is simply not leadership behaviour. You welcome responsibility.

As of February last year, 218 ran to a £1.6M budget jointly funded by Scottish Government – via a £1.3M Section 27 Grant - and Glasgow, with a £0.3M contribution. Both have severe funding issues, true, and Glasgow requested a £0.3m cost reduction. Neither said they wanted the service closed. We worked hard to deliver the savings. Nevertheless, by mid-August, Glasgow took it to market, opening provision to bids from suitable organisations. The brief looked pretty much as it was before, yet the set budget at £0.65M was half of what it had been even after the £300k reduction. In effect, organisations were invited to run the service at their own, unsustainable deficit. An invitation that nobody, including us, took up. And with not a single bid, let alone a winner, something terrible unfolded, including wasteful, costly, redundancies that Turning Point Scotland will bear.

So, is this a market failure, or a flawed tender process? Neither. It’s a failure of leadership, clearly; where the body that supplied over 80% of funding holds that it’s purely a matter for the other funder running the tender who themselves seem disappointed by the sector’s lack of appetite in taking on a service with insufficient funding. Yet no one, including the social care minister, has their fingerprints on a closure decision. The happy convenience of this, accidental or by design, will be noted. Surely, we cannot let deliberately underfunded tenders become the blameless service closure mechanism of choice?

The Government’s Feeley report of 2020 has long since called out care service tendering  – ‘characterised by mistrust, compromise,  and market forces’,  as completely unsuitable for the sector.

Since then, however, despite accepting Feeley’s characterisation, we’ve been told the new Scottish National Care Service will remedy these issues only to see the Bill’s passage falter repetitively, leaving the pressing issues within Social Care unaddressed.  

Some of my own learnings remain unresolved. Were Turning Point Scotland ourselves too passive whilst this played out? Should we have challenged, complained, and lobbied more? Yet it’s hard to see what might have made a difference when those with power are doing all they can to dodge the accountability that should go with it.

Scottish social care desperately needs leadership. If those charged with doing so have decided to abdicate, can they take responsibility for that decision? Are we now in a position where Boards of Trustees must take the decisions that our elected parties feel they must duck?

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