The campaign to devolve employability services to Scotland lasted more than a decade. It was based on the simple proposition that local control would be better, complementary work could be aligned to deliver a better service and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which was operating a wicked campaign of sanctions against unemployed people, would be removed from the scene.
Responsibility for employability was eventually transferred to the Scottish Government as part of the fallout from the independence referendum. By that point unemployment was falling, so only a fraction of the budget came north – but at least there was an opportunity to do things differently. As the late Campbell Christie noted in his pivotal report on the future delivery of public services, employability support could become part of the tapestry of Scottish public services and the distinctive ethos and culture which underpins everything from hospitals, schools and much else besides.
Not a bit of it. The announcement today of the successful bidders for Fair Start Scotland – the majority of whom are private companies who will deliver an almost identical approach to the discredited Work Programme – is a disgrace. It seems that there was a “same team, different jerseys” approach, with many of the officials who created the new Scottish service simply being transferred from the DWP. The result is that there are many specialist and highly experienced Scottish charities and social enterprises which will be left out in the cold, angry and disappointed with these decisions.
Imagine only paying doctors for the people they cure or teachers for those who pass exams; of course it would affect how they go about their business. The focus would be entirely on those who could be saved, educated etc. This new programme carries a 70 per cent payment-by-results premium which means that the most able, who need the least help, will get the most attention. “Park and Cream” is the trade jargon – park your most difficult customers (mostly with the third sector in return for a pittance, effectively making charities sub-contractors with no decision-making power) and help the cream into the jobs that many would find anyway.
That’s what invariably happens when private profit is involved in the delivery of human services – the need to get a return on investment drives behaviour. There are at least two reasons why this is unacceptable and ought to have been ruled out from the start. First, it inevitably means that employability support is no longer a proper public service which treats all of its customers equally. Those with special needs go to the back of the queue, thereby entrenching inequality. Quite how Scottish Ministers can justify this is beyond me.
Secondly, we ought to learn lessons from across the public service spectrum to better understand what works. Our recently retired Chief Medical Officer discovered that people with long term conditions who were supported to manage their own illness did rather better. There is now a growing body of evidence and practice that self-direction is the way to go. Unfortunately, those charged with designing Scotland’s approach to employability seem not to have been paying attention.
Instead we have been treated to a classic procurement exercise, divided up like an auction into lots, with screeds of jargon, supply chains and all the other paraphernalia designed to cover backs and find a cheap and maybe not so cheerful outfit which is hungry enough to take it on. Cue a whole lot of private sector outfits on the make. Many thought this alien culture was the preserve of English public services because market making is central to the Tory vision of the future (GP commissioning, private prisons, etc). Its introduction to Scotland represents a worrying shift away from our ethos.
What we need to know now is whether a wider change can be read into these worrying announcements. Is it now open season for making private gain from our public services? Also, I guess, there are many unemployed people simply wondering what this all means for them. The underlying message seems that there will soon be a service out there which is only interested in helping you if you are likely, whatever the state of the labour market, to get a job quickly.
Yet the key to truly unlocking the issue of employability in Scotland is working towards personalised services at a local level, with the third sector at the heart of it. If some private sector companies undercutting the third sector with services that don’t make real changes to people’s lives can make money out of you then that seems to be fine with the Scottish Government. It really isn’t ok by me