‘Controversial’ care decision marked 20 years on

In 1991 Somerset County Council became the first in the country to outsource its elderly care to an independent company.

Somerset Care’s now one of the biggest employers in the area, with 3000 staff in the county.

Parties have been taking place in Somerset Care’s 27 homes to celebrate the anniversary.

But the decision to take adult social care away from the public sector was controversial.

So has that pioneering move, 20 years ago, been a success?

Making changes

Chris Davies was director of social services at Somerset County Council when the decision to form Somerset Care was made.

“As ever the government was introducing change, changing the financing arrangements for care, changing the legal arrangements for care,” he said.

“So we sat down and talked about how can we position Somerset best for the next 10 to 20 years.

“And we came to the conclusion that if we put our care services for elderly people into the independent sector, not-for-profit but free to trade, free to borrow money, free to invest, free to develop, then that was right for the future of elderly care in Somerset.”

Chris Davies said the decision had cross-party support from the politicians at the county council, but that did not stop it being controversial with staff.

Controversial plan

Some 1,800 staff moved from the county council to Somerset Care.

Alan Martin was the local Unison union representative in 1991.

He remembers fiery meetings with council officers and staff from the local health authority.

“There was a lot of reticence to be honest among staff at the time,” he said.

“I think that’s probably in some ways been proved to be justifiable.
Chris Davies with care home resident
Ex-county council social services boss meets care home residents

“We had a lot of reservations about no longer being within the county council, or the health service, and when the people were transferred out, our main concern was that it would drive down terms, conditions and pay.”

But Somerset is a model that’s been followed around the country.

Bath and North East Somerset Council’s currently looking at moving its adult care into a social enterprise, in a similar move.

Andrew Larpent, chief executive Somerset Care, says outsourcing does work.

“We’ve had to learn to compete for our contracts and that keeps us very much on our toes,” said Mr Larpent.

“We are judged daily by our customers – either people who pay for their care individually, or local authorities who choose to contract us.”

Loyal staff

Some of the staff who moved over to Somerset Care are still working now.

Eileen Haysham is in her 70s and has been a carer for 45 years, now often looking after people younger than her.

“We had a big meeting to tell us that we were going to change over from the county council to Somerset Care and we all got different contracts,” she acknowledged.

“But I’m quite happy with Somerset Care. They’ve been quite good”.

Eileen says she’s got no plans to stop working, even though many of her clients nowadays are younger than she is.

“I get great pleasure in going to a person’s home and thinking about keeping them there, a bit independent, in their own home as long as possible. I get great pleasure helping people.”