Social Enterprises: No, not the best thing since sliced bread

There’s a completely bizarre supplement in today’s Guardian, all about social enterprise companies. There’s no analysis here at all – the eight page insert is devoted to telling us how wonderful social enterprises are. The headlines are along the lines of ‘How to build a better future’, ‘Onwards and upwards’, ‘The NHS should seek advice from social entrepreneurs’ and so on. We’re told that ‘in future a millionaire will not just be someone who has made a million pounds but also someone who has helped change a million lives’.

I read this garbage on the train home feeling a bit mystified. The Guardian’s coverage of the Government’s systematic dismantling of the NHS is nothing to write home about – but I expected more than this grovelling praise for some vicious and reactionary policies. I would put in a link to the supplement, but it doesn’t seem to be available online.

As I read the supplement, I felt it had the feel of an advertising feature. All hype, no honesty. I looked more closely – and realised that this really was an advertising feature. The supplement has a Department of Health logo on the front. A full page Department of Health ad on the back proclaims, ‘Social Enterprise: Making a difference to communities; More choice for better health’. In very, very small print, we’re told the paper is produced ‘In association with the Department of Health’.

I assume, then, that this was written by Department of Health civil servants – many with a private sector background, and all of them seemingly committed to the break-up of the NHS. I also assume the Department of Health paid for this promotional material. If so, it’s a shame the Guardian didn’t make this a little bit clearer. Perhaps some slightly more robust coverage of what’s actually happening to the NHS would help to make amends.

Social enterprises are one strand of a multi-faceted attack on the NHS – but this is serious stuff. Last week, Cabinet Officer Liam Byrne announced to the ‘Voice 09 Social Enterprise Conference’ that 25,000 jobs will be shifted to social enterprises companies over the next few months – many coming from the NHS and local government. The Cabinet Office press release is here.

The Guardian’s DOH advertising puff boasts of the ‘Right to Request’ plan. The intention here is to encourage NHS staff to set up small businesses to provide healthcare, with NHS commissioners forced to accept the proposals whether they meet local health needs or not. The scale of this is intended to be huge – a quarter of a million staff, and £10 billion of public money. We’re told “We are the first state in Europe to go down this route”. One might wonder why.

We should have no illusions about the merits of social enterprise companies. The agenda here is the breaking up of the NHS, the large scale transfer of NHS services and NHS staff to non-NHS organisations, and the destruction of the public sector ethos of the NHS. And how on earth can we maintain high standards of clinical care when care is provided by a miscellaneous ragbag of companies competing – on the basis of cutting costs – to grab contracts? Clinical governance is off the agenda these days, while professionalism is a dirty word.

Social enterprise companies themselves are simply a stepping stone towards out and out privatisation. As we move rapidly towards a free market system for the provision of health care, social enterprises run by clinicians will be very quickly wiped out by loss leader bids submitted by multinational companies.

The risks of losing the NHS are escalating sharply. We need a serious fight by the unions to defend the most valued institution we have in this country. It would help if the media alerted the public to the scale of the attack we’re facing. Campaigning journalism might be, short term, less lucrative than printing Department of Health puff – but could be of far greater long term value.

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2 Responses to Social Enterprises: No, not the best thing since sliced bread

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