To All Somerset County Councillors and Senior Officers


To All Somerset County Councillors and Senior Officers


28 June 2016


Dear Somerset County Councillor


Learning Disabilities Services Procurement


In February 2014 Cabinet considered a paper regarding the future commissioning of Learning Disabilities Services.  Cabinet decided to explore the creation of a Social Enterprise Partnership to potentially deliver these services in the future.  Given that the consultation exercise conducted by the Council had identified that the vast majority of customers and carers “…preference is for the continued direct provision of the services they receive by the Council.” with “…overwhelmingly positive feedback…” from service users, the rationale for this focused on the suggested limitations of retaining the service in house.


UNISON has been working closely with Somerset Council staff both Learning Disabilities Senior Managers and the Procurement Leads, including the involvement of UNISON Stewards in the evaluation of potential bidders.  Despite this close working and repeated requests for information UNISON does not have clarity regarding how the bidders have addressed the suggested limitations in the 2014 Business Case of retaining the service within the Council.


UNISON is obviously concerned about this, particularly given that “… there was significant support from both customers and carers for the existing service …”.  Furthermore, the Business Case identified the majority of respondents (54.1%) in the consultation with customers and carers stated that they would prefer that the service remain with the Council, with only 33.8% indicating a preference for the service to be delivered by a new organisation legally independent from the Council such as a Social Enterprise.  Furthermore, customers and carers were encouraged to select this second option as it was promoted that only a service delivered outside of the Council could address the identified ‘limitations’        




No information has been shared with UNISON despite repeated questions including a Freedom of Information request, to identify what the bidders propose in relation to addressing these limitations.


The paper identified the limitations of retaining the service as:


  • The service is not attracting young people into its current provision due to the age profile of many of the people already using its services.  Most of the buildings used by the service incorporate shared living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms which exacerbates this problem as younger people usually prefer to opt for self-contained accommodation with on-suite facilities and minimal shared space. The result of this is vacancies that the Learning Disabilities Provider Service cannot fill, particularly in Supported Living and Residential Care services, as young people are not choosing to live with older customers. This impact of this is already being felt. For example, as at December 2013, there were 53 vacancies within Residential Care and Supported Living Services provided by the Learning Disabilities Provider Service.


  • The service has difficulty setting up new services as the processes to raise money and make investment decisions within local government are not agile and flexible enough to respond to customer and market needs.


  • The service is difficult to cost on the same basis as the rest of the sector as its overhead costs, for example for things like human resources and information technology, are spread across the Council. This make it both difficult to cost services for the purposes of supporting people who want to use a Personal Budget, and to compare value for money with the rest of the sector.


  • The service cannot trade with the wider population.


UNISON hopes that as decision makers you have greater clarity regarding evidence that demonstrate whether the bidders have fully addressed these issues.




We believe that Cabinet should reflect on the purpose behind the decision to explore how Somerset Learning Disabilities Services should be delivered:


“This stated purpose was about ensuring sustainable high quality services for people with a learning disability into the future, and the implications of this on the management and ownership of these services. It is not about the future of any specific service that the Council funds or provides, and there are no savings targets associated with this decision. This report provides an update on the results of the consultation and market engagement authorised by Cabinet on 11/09/2013, and seeks a decision on the preferred option for the future commissioning of the Learning Disabilities Provider Service following due consideration of the impact assessment.”




And the vision for these services was:


  • People with learning disabilities and their families will have more control over their services;
  • People with learning disabilities and their families can make more day to day choices;
  • People with learning disabilities are helped to have the same opportunities as everyone else;
  • The buildings people live in are high quality and fit for purpose;
  • Services are good value for money.


It is important to determine whether sufficient evidence has been provided to establish whether this purpose and vision together with the stated outcomes the Council wanted achieve for these services;


  • Services that are sustainable – both now and in the foreseeable future;
  • Services that actively engage and involve customers and carers at every level;
  • Services that embed a person centred approach and ethos in everything they do;
  • Services that people choose when using a Personal Budget;
  • Services that can respond flexibly to meet current and future demand;
  • Services that have the skills and capacity to support people in crisis.




Benefits of retaining in house include:


  • The Learning Disabilities Provider Service is a good service. It has successfully remodelled elements of its provision, most notably employment support, over the last year. It has received positive feedback in a recent customer experience survey undertaken by the Council’s Customers and Communities team. Anonymous visitor questionnaires (offered to any visitor to a service) have also provided overwhelmingly positive feedback.
  • Recent developments are;
    • LD services have attracted ½ million pounds of new business in Future 4 and domiciliary care services.
    • Service reconfiguration project, residential services to supported living.
    • Building reconfiguration and upgrades project.
    • Made savings of £700K over a 2-year period in sickness absence, this figure also takes account of the cost of the First Care system and the backfill cost for absent staff and in addition supporting staff with fast track appointments and smoking cessation clinics.
    • Made improvements to the LD recruitment strategy for example the use of social media and online DBS at local level.
  • A majority of customers and carers have told us that their preference is for the continued direct provision of the services they receive by the Council.
  • It would have a low, or no short term impact on customers and carers.
  • It would retain skills, expertise, knowledge and existing service levels.
  • There would be no additional or double funding of council-wide overheads, including Southwest One or any succeeding arrangements
  • It would not incur any short term change costs
  • Maintaining the in-house provision avoids the risk of market failure, with its consequent dangers for vulnerable people and the Council’s ability to meet its statutory responsibilities, as well as cost and reputational implications.


What would be achieved by contracting the service out to a Social Enterprise, rather than retaining the service in house?  The significant costs of setting up a Social Enterprise (previously estimated to be in the region of £750,000) could be put to better use to remodel the service to deliver a service that has already in its current format received a resounding endorsement from the customers and carers that it serves.


Unisons concerns recommending awarding the contract to Dimensions.


Stakeholders have been informed about Dimensions bid via their aspirational statements. However, in practical terms, despite numerous requests over the last 18 months, we have not received information on how the social enterprise, set up with Dimensions will deliver the service.


It is also of concern that in February 2012 UNISON were in negotiations with Dimensions who found themselves under financial pressure due to austerity measures and the cut by government to local authority and health trust funding. This led to an erosion of terms and conditions for staff who had been transferred from the public sector under the TUPE regulations into Dimensions. This was presented by Dimensions under an Equal Terms Proposal.


The UNISON Somerset branch has commissioned three reports from APSE. The third report has highlighted that in Dimensions accounts and annual report that Dimensions provide services under contract from other local authorities and that in some areas this has now ceased. It would therefore be judicious to understand the reasons that led to this. Were contracts terminated or were Dimensions unsuccessful in a competitive bid with other providers?


The business case states that an external provider would be in a better position to secure finance and funding. They would also be advantages of securing suitable accommodation and upgrading current stock to appeal to a younger generation. The report also recommends UNISON seeks clarification on three points;


  • Is it any clearer what the arrangements will be?  Will properties be sold or leased? What would the implications for this be if the Council no longer wished to contract with Dimensions?  
  • Will the proposed arrangements meet legislative requirements around the obligation to obtain best consideration for assets?
  • What sources of funding and finance would be available to Dimensions that would not be available to the Council?  Has the Council considered the fact that, as a local authority, it is likely to have access to capital funding on more favourable terms than those available to a non-local authority body?


It is also not clear with regard to the ownership and governance of the new social enterprise. During the early stages of the project emphasis was made on the procurement of a partner in order to form the SEV. However now that the project is reaching its conclusion there appears to be a shift in direction. Dimensions would be contracted to set up the new SEV and then contracted to deliver the service?


In conclusion the report recommends that UNISON seeks clarification from the council in the following areas;


  • Dimensions as a service provider and how the Council is working with them to establish a Social Enterprise Vehicle to deliver the LDPS
  • Why customers would be any more likely to choose to use the new service than the Council LDPS, particularly if more work were done to modernise the Council LDPS’s delivery
  • Organisational structure and governance
  • Finance
  • Asset transfer and ownership
  • Use of profits
  • Risk


UNISON therefore requests that councillors consider these points when evaluating the recommendation to set up a new SEV to deliver the LDPS in Somerset.



Kind regards


Belinda Burton

Branch Secretary

Somerset County UNISON Branch


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