Is wrong to profit from human misery?
Over the last week or so there has been a huge amount of comments (I don't think it deserves to be called a debate) in The Guardian, community Care etc about the issue of outsourcing child protection and other child care services. The Government issued a consultation asking people what they thought about local authorities being able to outsource these services. Immediately a large number of people waded into the debate firing off comments about it being appalling that child protection was going to be hived off to Serco even though there was nothing in the consultation document to suggest that this was likely to happen. What was worse however, was the vitriolic stream of comments which emerged in the Guardian about the private sector and by implication anyone who is the social care business. One person who wrote a brief article in defence of outsourcing in Guardian Society was described as 'evil' by a commentator.
At this stage I want to make my personal views about privatisation known. I think that public sector bodies, while being far from perfect, usually offer coherent and consistent well managed services on areas like child protection. I think for a service like child protection, it is likely that any process of outsourcing is likely to lead to fragmentation and while there might be some examples of improved practice there will also be poorer practice and that is concerning in such a sensitive area. HOWEVER, I think it could in some cases offer professionals to form private practices who could work in innovative and fulfilling ways for those workers and these practices could be a beacon for the sector.
I have made a lot of comments on different places which probably would lead to people thinking I am a lot more in favour of outsourcing than I am but this is due to my natural tendency to want to give an airing to the side of the debate which nobody else seems to be willing to give a hearing to. I think it's also because I am appalled by the level of prejudice and vitriol being pumped out by people who claim to caring and morally superior to the Tories. From where I am standing some of them are like the left wing equivalent of Fox News viewers.
I want therefore to look at a few myths about outsourcing.
Myth 1. The private sector is social care is made up of rich money grabbing fat cats.
Actually the majority of providers on social care are people of,very modest means, some of who, are scraping together a pretty marginal existence. One of reasons that unemployment has not gone up significantly as a result of austerity is the huge rise on self employment. Many of these self employed are freelancers and consultants who are doing bits of training and consultancy work for local authorities following being made redundant. In fact at least one local authority which I know if encouraged all their day care workers who they were making redundant to set themselves up in business as providers. How there was going to be work for all of them when they couldn't continue as employees I don't know. I doubt of many of them are going to be joining the Fortune 500 anytime soon.
Another type of business in social care is the small family run care home. I delay with a number of such businesses over the years. One was a four bedded unit for teenagers with behavioural problems which looked like an ordinary family home. The owner worked in it together with his partner. Both had a really strong commitment to working with disturbed young people despite the fact that the woman of the couple had developed tinnitus following an assault by a young person. The male owner had invested an inheritance from his parents in this business. He could have put it into property but he developed this and some other social care services with the money. He made an honest profit and a reasonable livelyhood by offering a standard and style of care which wasn't available anywhere else in the area.
When I hear people describe people like that couple as profiteers it makes my blood boil.
There are some profiteers in social care like the carpetbaggers behind the Southern Cross Scandal but they are very much the exception. There are not many big providers in social care. Many of the home care businesses in some areas are very small operations, sometimes run by former home helps who want to improve their standard of living and be entrepreneurial on a small scale.
Myth 2 Earning money from child care is moral when it's called a wage and immoral when it's called profit.
Okay so - is that always true? What if the wage is 150k and the profit is 0.5% which one is moral then?
Basically if you study to be a Doctor or Social Worker you expect a return on the investment of your your time and commitment on the form of an income. This is called a wage. If you take a risk and go into business for yourself then you will need to make a surplus. Out of this surplus you will have to pay interest to any bank or a dividend to anyone who lent you money to set up the business. Since investors are taking a risk and could potentially lose some or all of their money they will expect a bigger return that they would get from a bank account. After all that there might be some money left over for you to take put a wage. This is of course provided you actually do make money and don't end up going bust. If you rely on the council to send you referrals and they don't send you any for a few months then nobody is going to bail you out. The surplus which a business makes is called a profit.
There are few differences between people who make wages and people who make profits. People who make wages get a funded pension, sick pay, holiday pay, maternity pay. People who work freelance or run their own business get none of these things. If they are too sick to work they get nothing. If business conditions deteriorate they could lose their home and everything they own. It sometimes amazes me why anybody actually does it.
So- Do you still think wages are moral and profits are immoral.
Myth 3 It is wrong to profit from human misery.
This is the suggestion that certain forms of activity such as protecting vulnerable children should never be a source of profit. This idea, strongly put forward in the Guardian suggests by implication that it might actually be more moral to earn money from something like cigarettes than work which improves people's lives.
I think Martin Narey nailed it on the head today. He said that he makes lots of money from human misery- It's called a wage ( see Myth 2 above).
Myth 4. It is the greed of capitalism which leads to poor wages in outsourced services.
This is untrue. Local authorities could in theory specify that the workers in outsourced businesses get paid a decent wage. Fair trade Coffee is an example of capitalism being used to improve workers conditions by making workers pay a marketable commodity for customers to sponsor. Home care contracts often specify such low rates that it would be impossible for the business to pay decent wages. Outsourcing is used as a politically expedient way of lowering pay. Local authorities could not get away with lowering wages for their own employees but by outsourcing the work they can also outsource the notoriety associated with poor pay and conditions. It is not true that private companies are making large profits by ripping off workers in outsourced contracts. Hourly rates and margins are cut to the bone.
This is not of course the fault of local authorities- they are experiencing austerity. However, it is not a direct consequence of capitalism either.
Myth 5. Social work practices will never be better than working for the council and they will never get off the ground.
Well whether this turns out to be myth or not will depend on the attitude of social workers and whether they seize the opportunities of being able to control their own destinies. Much is made in the literature of how social workers are suffering under managerialism, poor supervision, inadequate IT facilities etc. by taking charge of their own practices there is huge scope for change. More flexible working, less hierarchical management, a culture which is less driven by fear and defensive practice, better relationships with local communities which social workers serve, better use of media to publicise good practice, opportunities to put local residents and young people on steering committees to direct how the service is provided. Really the list of what could be achieved is only as limited as out imagination.
Myth 6. Change can happen easily and quickly.
As a social work academic I feel its my job to prepare students for change and prepare them for a long career which could take many forms over the next few years. It's not just to prepare them just for the job as it is now. However, the sector as a whole has been long used to thinking in terms only of a career in local government. It will be a challenge for social work academic its over the next few years to prepare their students for the challenges of working in different types of agencies from before.
Government too must offer help and support if existing social workers are to take advantage of new opportunities. There is also a role for employers with the help of Universities to prepare workers for change- if that is what is wanted.