Social enterprises 'A leap in the dark' warns UNISON

UNISON, the UK’s largest public service union, today warned that Government plans to push ahead with large NHS social enterprise schemes are, “a leap in the dark for staff and patients”.

The union is warning that, contrary to Andrew Lansley’s claims, very few of the prospective large social enterprise schemes in the health service are being driven by bottom-up demand from staff. The vast majority are management-led initiatives, in which employee engagement is little more than an afterthought.

Social enterprises also hold real dangers for patients and for the future of the NHS. As private companies they are very fragile and may find themselves subject to take-over from large private healthcare providers. Mike Jackson, UNISON Senior National Officer for health, said:

The creation of more large scale social enterprises is a leap in the dark for NHS patients and staff. They pave the way for more private healthcare companies to get a stronger foothold into our NHS. And, because social enterprises are private companies, staff will no longer work for the NHS. This leaves the pay, pensions and conditions of an estimated 25,000 staff in limbo. UNISON is vigorously opposed to these schemes unless it can be shown that staff truly support them. Where there is doubt, they should be entitled to a free and fair ballot.

Andrew Lansley is wrong when he says that there is enthusiasm for the scheme from staff. All the evidence that UNISON has gathered, points to the decision to become a social enterprise as top-down, management-led. It is usually a coup by senior managers concerned they will lose their jobs.

Given the fragile business model it is also quite possible that, in the future, a multinational might look to break into the market, by taking over a social enterprise. Given the Government’s track record, it is hard to trust their Damascene conversion to co-operatives and social enterprises. This is just another way for them to wash their hands of the responsibility for delivering NHS services and inviting in the private sector.”

Social enterprises contain a number of risks in themselves. In a volatile economic climate in which the government is pushing for “any willing provider” to compete to win services, there is no guarantee that social enterprises will survive. And if these organisations fail there is no guarantee of what will happen to the services they are delivering.

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