ARTICLES In the national debate about civil society, social care must have a voice

In the national debate about civil society, social care must have a voice

Will the future be stronger for voluntary sector providers of adult social care if disabled people are truly at the heart of our decision-making? Why do professionals talk on behalf of their beneficiaries when people themselves and their families are capable of and willing to speak up? How can technology and social media strengthen relationships between people who use services and care providers?

These bold questions are among those explored in a forthcoming report by VODG, sparked by a recent event that we held as part of the Civil Society Futures inquiry. Launched last year, the inquiry chaired by Julia Unwin, former chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is “a national conversation about how English civil society can flourish in a fast changing world”.

VODG has already urged the sector to consider how to deliver social care with stronger collaboration between organisations and disabled people. It is therefore vital that VODG and our membership contribute to the inquiry — an inquiry that sparks discussion about the role and purpose of civic action, community-based organisations and the voluntary sector.

Our recent event in London, addressed by Julia Unwin, was an opportunity to reflect on our combined social aims and the state of our sector. What can we do differently to develop third sector disability provision? What are the barriers to organisational change? Against a backdrop of increasing demand, dwindling funding and challenges in workforce recruitment and retention, it is clear that organisations that simply carry on doing more of the same will fail to be fit for the future.

There are, for example, 11 million disabled people living in England today. By 2025, there will be 11.7m. Despite this rising need, cumulative adult social care cuts since 2010 have amounted to £6.3 billion, and planned savings for adult social care in 2017/18 are a further £824m4. In addition, the retrospective requirement to provide national minimum/living wage back-pay to sleep-in shift workers for up to six years would be financially disastrous for many providers as well which would be forced to stop trading. Meanwhile, in 2017 there were an estimated 90,000 vacancies across the adult social care sector at any given time. And Brexit further threatens the labour supply for adult social care, an issue that VODG has long lobbied about.

Most recently, a recent National Audit Office report on the adult social care workforce warned that the sector is a “Cinderella service”, with the Department of Health and social care not doing enough to ensure it is sustainable. And an additional £150m of funding in the latest local government finance settlement does not get close to plugging the care funding gap. The sector needs a permanent solution.

Despite this harsh operating context, VODG members opened the Civil Society Future event with a focus on their aspirations for the voluntary social care sector. For example, operating as a “counterbalance to the “establishment’ direction of travel and austerity” is, in the words of one debate participant, one way that organisations can carve out a unique role that is not part of the establishment.

More generally, the wider sector might become “less fragmented”, with the potential for health and social care to work more closely (VODG has already called for the voluntary sector to be recognised as central to the NHS and health system). Hope also exists that all interested parties such as state, funders and providers will align “around the best interests of citizens and support them to contribute to society”.

VODG members are also keen to champion the latest technological developments which, according to one member, could “radically change how we support people”. VODG has already championed this issue, most recently in a good practice report, underlining how technology can be an additional help, rather than a replacement for social care.

Among the potential problems facing the movement is the issue, according to our debate, that organisations are too frightened to put their heads above the parapet.

Ultimately, funding is the main barrier. Disabled people are hard hit hard by austerity and many “fall through the cracks” because they are not eligible for ever-shrinking amount of statutory funding. The impact of Brexit — an issue that VODG has long lobbied on — is a major concern in any discussion about challenges, given how it will affect labour supply and European-related funding.

Yet given the positive ethos and founding missions of voluntary sector organisations, there is room for optimism. There is, according to one VODG member speaking at the event, “a strong belief in humanity, in the fact that actually we will pull through…while we’re [seemingly] worried about social and economic meltdown and chaos”. Perhaps action could be sparked by the anger at the status quo? Does the voluntary sector in fact need “a punk era — but for social care”? And these points raise important future questions for VODG, including how providers work together.

Our Civil Society Futures discussion leaves us in no doubt that organisations have little choice but to transform. To quote another participant: “If demography’s changing then the client base is changing and the needs are probably changing. So charities that are still stuck in the ‘this is what we’re for and this is the way we do it’ are not moving with the times.”