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Right to deride still afflicts social enterprise


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Friday, 8 April 2011

Right to deride still afflicts social enterprise

One of the interesting things about social enterprise policy is that it has hardly changed from the last administration to the present one.

True, the newly announced “right to provide” widens the net beyond the relatively narrow community services remit of the “right to request” to include acute, mental health and primary care trusts, but it exists to fulfil the same broad aim: to empower people working in the NHS or in local authorities to offer better services by getting out of statutory bodies and doing their own thing. 

What is more interesting is that it doesn’t seem to matter what political brand you smoke, there are plenty of people determined to tell us that social enterprise is bad for the health of the NHS.

It’s difficult to demonise social enterprise with reference to individual cases because social businesses are beyond reproach. They are usually run by insanely dedicated people who do a great job for the people they serve. Social enterprises not only look after people that statutory services fail to reach, often they make a point of employing people who don’t fit in too.

If you want to knock social enterprise, you need to deal in sweeping generalisations. It’s the insidious long-term damage it does, you see.
Never mind the outcome; it’s the political motive we need to worry about – whether it’s erosion of precious institutions, undermining of pension and employment rights or backdoor privatisation of the NHS.

The trouble is that some of the precious institutions are also useless, public sector pensions are being chipped away by economic inevitability (see private sector for details) and backdoor privatisation may not be as bad as the front-door kind.

In any case, it’s disingenuous to use the P word about social enterprise. 
You can’t have privatisation without the profit motive and social enterprises don’t make a profit – or not in the Porsche driving, tax haven dwelling, second home owning sense that most of its detractors object to.

The directors of social businesses don’t get big dividends and profits have to be reinvested in the business or a good cause. And if all that weren’t miserable enough, social enterprises have to demonstrate that they fulfil a social or environmental purpose.

Social enterprise in all its forms now accounts for around 2% of GDP, but there is no chance it will ever be 50% or even 20%. No one understands this better than social entrepreneurs themselves, who know that they are permanently disqualified from being mainstream – just as Iggy Pop would have been if no one had invented car insurance.

Social businesses exist to fill the gaps between statutory services not to replace them. If social enterprise didn’t exist, the NHS would have to invent it.
No one really objects to competition among providers. It’s the new freedom of commissioners they worry about. So long as commissioners kept doing the same thing, exercising a virtual monopoly of services they provided themselves or bought from long-established incumbents, there was no serious threat of competition, or progress, or much else.

But if the new commissioning organisations take their liberated status seriously, all bets are off.

The irony is that if social enterprise remains a focus for counter-reformist propaganda and people are deterred from starting social businesses, the door will simply open wider to other private sector interests. Result: fewer winners and many more losers.

ggardiner says:
May 24, 2011 06:17 AM
The lack of understanding about social enterprise, even within the "sector" does us no favours. For too long there have been discussions about definition and governance. Most SE support is absolutely fixated by governance.

Yes, I know getting the legal vehicle right is important but not to the detriment of the entrepreneurial idea. Is your basic business concept sustainable?

SE is a great option for services in the NHS. it's not a panacea. It should never be. But....

It does create opportunities for assets to be protected, services to be freed of bureaucratic red tape and workers freed to deliver services designed from the ground up.

Until some people in the NHS see the potential in SEs they will always place barriers in the way, opening the door to the privTe sector.

Although to be fair that door is already firmly open and being strengthened by allowing GPs more financial power: are not most GP practice some form of private sector provision?