Unite attacks plans to convert NHS services into social enterprises

Union warns of a 'leap in the dark' that could break up the health service and increase costs

Trade union Unite has spoken out against plans to turn NHS services into social enterprises.

The union has launched a campaign against proposals to transfer the provision of community health services in Medway, Kent, to a newly created social enterprise.

It has also called for a ballot of staff at NHS Hull, a primary care trust, on whether services should be transferred to a social enterprise called the City Health Care Partnership.

Unite described the creation of social enterprises in the NHS as a "leap in the dark" that could break up the health service and increase costs.

It argued that social enterprises could subsequently lose contracts to private healthcare companies, leading to job losses and the fragmentation of services.

The union added that social enterprises delivering NHS services might have to pay VAT, calling into question their financial viability.

"We will be actively campaigning to keep Medway's services in the NHS," said Sarah Carpenter, Unite's lead officer for health in the south east.

"We want to make the public aware of what a social enterprise will actually mean for families and communities in Medway. Social enterprises cannot be imposed by stealth."

But a spokeswoman for Medway Community Healthcare, part of the Medway Primary Care Trust, said the union's claims were premature because a social enterprise was only one option being considered for the future of services.

The spokeswoman said two options were being considered – the establishment of social enterprises or community foundation trusts – and both would increase accountability to the local community.

Under Department of Health policy, all primary care trusts are becoming commissioners rather than providers of services.

They have the choice of changing community health services into foundations, trusts or social enterprises.

But trade unions believe statements from Andy Burnham, heath secretary, that the NHS is the "preferred provider" of choice mean outside providers should be asked to tender only if a service is failing.

Ceri Jones, head of policy at the Social Enterprise Coalition, said there was an issue of social enterprises paying VAT where NHS providers did not.

But she added: "This is not an issue of financial viability, but requires consideration of how this difference in cost can be factored into the contracting process.

"In addition, many social enterprises, even when paying VAT, are still demonstrating added value, and value for money."

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