Kevin Curley: The perils of competitive tendering

The woes of Home-Start illustrate how too many contract decisions are left to the technocrats, says our columnist

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

My love of Home-Start began in 1982, when Margaret Harrison, the charity's charismatic founder, gave a talk to the local National Children's Bureau group in Hull, where I was CVS director.

She told us moving stories of how volunteers had helped parents of under-fives to overcome depression or debt or to stop hitting their children. After her talk, we set up a working party to bring Home-Start to Hull, and it opened just six months later.

Home-Start is in trouble now. Small, independent family support charities do not thrive in the new commissioning environment, with its emphasis on big contracts awarded on a competitive basis. And successful, low-cost preventive work - it costs about £1,200 to support a family for a year through Home-Start - is an easy target as local authorities make cuts.

Home-Start Reading lost its annual grant to Barnardo's in 2011 when the council moved to competitive tendering. In Somerset, three Home-Start charities lost funding - again to Barnardo's - when the council abandoned grants in favour of one county-wide contract.

There was a failure of political leadership in both areas as the commissioning technocrats took over. Jill Lake, chair of Home-Start Reading, puts it this way: "The councillors weren't involved in the commissioning decision. There was a lot of anger when they realised Home-Start lost out. It contradicted their commitment to localism."

Annie O'Brian, head of communications at Home-Start UK, tells me that Home-Starts closed last year in Bassetlaw, Fenland, Milton Keynes, Salford and six other areas. "An increasing number are under pressure from cuts - more than any other year I can remember," she says.

My social enterprise friends point to the failure of such charities "to escape grant dependency" and "to win independence through trading". But I see nothing wrong in building relationships of trust with your local council and NHS so that grants come in every year to support your work. We used to call it partnership.

Home-Start trustees have not been complacent. In Hampshire, Charles Kaye tells me about the county consortium he chairs. He led negotiations with the council on behalf of 10 local Home-Starts, leading to a six-year contract worth £1.8m. In Reading, Lake has won funding from British Gas and a local appeal. But both chairs agree that Home-Start's future had to rely on traditional support from councils and clinical commissioning groups.

Despite the closures, I have grounds for optimism. A common theme in my conversations is the anger of councillors when they see the unintended consequences of the shift away from grants. Greater political awareness, local authority control of public health budgets and local advocacy behind the new Social Value Act will bring opportunities for Home-Start and local charities like it.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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