Government taking ‘Pontius Pilate’ approach to College funding
BASW has questioned why the government is washing its hands of serious financial questions by refusing to properly address legitimate concerns raised by social workers over the yet to be established College of Social Work.
The Department for Education dismissed a range of BASW concerns about an un-divulged backroom deal between Unison and the Interim Board of the nascent College of Social Work, ‘hosted’ by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), including questions about how it was financially possible to offer the proposed £270 College membership to members of Unison for only £60 without some sort of subsidy from the union or from the public purse.
BASW chief executive Hilton Dawson described the DfE’s response as “a combination of the misleading, the bizarre or the partial”.
He said: “The DfE says there are ‘no arrangements in place for Unison to financially subsidise the College or SCIE’ but once again the detail of the agreement between the trade union and the College remains unpublished. Why are we being patronised by a ‘nanny knows best’ ethos that tells those not funded by the public purse to ‘quieten down and just trust us to get on with it’. We must see the detail of this agreement if ministers, or anyone else, expects social workers, and the wider public, to have any belief whatsoever in this venture.”
The DfE responded to BASW’s concern about the absence of a transparent tendering process in the award of contracts to SCIE and the IB by saying that SCIE was awarded the College contract because it was “the only suitable organisation for the work”. It added that the College was awarded a £25m annual Social Work Education Grant because it was “the only sector organisation in a position to take on this work”.
The response prompted BASW to highlight a Freedom of Information Request made by Zoe Tremain on January 2011 which confirmed that no tenders were sought, submitted or considered by government for the original £5m project to establish the College, even though BASW made a direct approach to government for this work.
On the allocation of the £25m SWEG grant to the nascent College of Social Work, of which 5% will go to College administration costs, BASW’s Hilton Dawson said: “It is truly remarkable that a decision could be reached that the College was the only option when it didn’t, and doesn’t even now, legally exist. Further, it is not yet independently governed, has a private arrangement with a major trade union and has absolutely no track record of delivering anything. As such it is difficult to have any confidence in the DfE’s ‘options appraisal’ process. This serves only to amplify our very serious concerns about the procurement methods used by government.”
Rebutting BASW’s concern about public funding benefitting Unison and sustaining SCIE as a quango, despite the government’s commitment to abolishing non departmental bodies, the DfE stated: “The Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) is a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee, not a part of government.”
The spokesperson added: “”Government is funding start-up and is not engaged in negotiation with Unison – this is a matter for the College. We understand that discussions with Unison are solely about a joint membership offer to the mutual benefit of both organisations’ members.”
BASW responded, however, by questioning why the DfE omitted reference to 93% of SCIE’s funding coming from public sector sources, including 91% from the Department for Health, and why ministers were so relaxed about the benefits they admit Unison will enjoy.
Mr Dawson said: “It is significant that the Department for Education has stated so boldly that the College is in discussion with Unison about a joint membership offer to the ‘mutual benefit’ of both organisations’ members as it is clear this will be to the exclusion of at least eight other trade unions with social workers in their membership.”
He concluded: “This response suggests a government keen to wash its hands of this matter by ticking a box marked ‘College’ to enable it to quell social work disquiet, quite regardless of whether the end result is anything like the high-minded concept originally envisaged.”
Why the DfE is so far off the mark
• SCIE is a registered charity and company limited by guarantee, just like BASW. However, SCIE’s Annual Report and Financial Statements for its financial year ended 31 March 2010 showed that 91.4% of its funding came directly from the Department of Health, with the Welsh Assembly Government, Scottish Executive and DHSSPS Northern Ireland contributing a further 1.8% of its income. Whether or not SCIE is part of government is irrelevant – it is 93% reliant on government funding.
• The College has been entirely funded by the public purse so far and is banking upon the administration of the £25m (potentially £27m next year) Social Work Education Grant to contribute a further £1.35m to its income in order to survive in the future. Also, even if we set aside the issue of core funding, the facts are, right now, that seed funding from government is being used to support the recruitment of social workers to Unison at a massive 80% discount.
• We understand that the Department for Education set a 2012 objective for the College to reach an agreement with Unison. BASW has always insisted and continues to insist that such a deal is indeed a matter for the College. The trouble is, the College is not yet independently governed and not yet able to manage its own business so it is completely inappropriate for a deal to be done now in such a clandestine fashion.
• If the membership deal is to be mutually beneficial, this confirms BASW concerns that either public money is being used to subsidise College membership or Unison money is being used to subsidise the College. An 80% discount for Unison members has to be paid for somewhere!
• A Freedom of Information Request made by Zoe Tremain on January 2011 confirmed that no tenders were sought, submitted or considered by government for the £5m project to establish the College. To our knowledge, BASW is the only organisation that made a direct approach to government for this work.
• The DfE says Unison will have ‘no influence over the administration of the SWEG grant’ but with the Unison deal being kept under wraps, with unknown governance arrangements for the College, with the College yet to have a legal existence and with such major questions over procurement methods, there is nothing in this that is reassuring for BASW, the social work profession and the public.