Press release: Disabled people in Tower Hamlets appeal to the Mayor – 5 September 2014

There is light at the end of the tunnel for disabled people in Tower Hamlets following an unprecedented decision with cross-party support at an important meeting of councillors. All eyes are now looking to the Mayor of Tower Hamlets to overturn an earlier decision, given that it appears he was not given full and complete information by Council officers when awarding a major contract to a national organisation in place of an existing local provider.

Over 500 people have now signed a petition calling on Tower Hamlets Council to rethink an earlier decision. The Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, had previously accepted Council officers’ recommendations to award the contract that supports disabled and older people to manage their own care packages to a national organisation called POhWER.

On Tuesday of this week over 40 disabled people and their helpers turned up to lobby councillors outside Tower Hamlets Town Hall. They explained to councillors how important it was for them to have locally provided services that met their communication and language needs and their ability to access computers. The lobby was attended by people of all ages and all parts of the local community, with banners they had designed themselves in English, Bengali and Somali saying “We want local help, not national POhWER” and “Lutfur Bhai, we’re relying on you. Please give us back our local support”.

Discussing the matter for over an hour on Tuesday evening, councillors asked officers probing questions about whether the proposed new service would genuinely meet the needs of local disabled and older people. They also questioned whether allocating the contract to an organisation that had bid only 56% of the expected contract value was really best value, suggesting this approach was introducing cuts by stealth. The papers submitted to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting suggested that the Mayor wasn’t given full or sufficient information before being asked to make the original decision. They set out areas of local and national policy that may not have been followed fully, and also questioned some other parts of the commissioning process.

Tellingly, it came to light during the meeting that of the eight organisations that had got to the final stage, seven of them delivered services around the country. And yet the proposed provider had bid at 38% less than the average of those other seven national organisations, calling into question for councillors on the Overview and Scrutiny Committee how that one organisation could be so much better and more efficient than seven others.

In an unprecedented outcome, there was a unanimous decision of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee to support referring the matter back to the Mayor for further consideration, which included three councillors from the Mayor’s own Tower Hamlets First party.

Mike Smith, CEO of Real said “I was really impressed at the quality of analysis and debate in the Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting, from all councillors. It was great to see this being considered on a non-party political basis, and it became clear through the questioning that the Mayor really had not been given all of the information necessary to make a fully informed decision. It was great to see local democracy working well”.

Smith, a wheelchair user himself, said: “Three quarters of Real’s client-facing staff are also disabled and that’s why we get such great results – we have a genuine understanding of and empathy with the people we are supporting because we’ve been there ourselves. We have several staff who speak Bengali/Sylhetti to make sure we can meet the needs of the local community”.

He went on to say “I can understand that the Council could be tempted to make such a big saving, but this is a false economy. The average annual price of the other 7 bids was £326,500, so how can this one organisation deliver an equivalent service for only £199,206 without cutting corners. We now know that Real scored the most points for quality in the tendering exercise, so this is all down to a big national organisation bidding unfairly low.  In addition, we are concerned that the proposed new service, much of which will be online, will not be accessible to our Bangladeshi clients and especially those who are older.”

Other organisations, including Tower Hamlets Council for Voluntary Service, Disability Rights UK and Inclusion London have also written to the Mayor or councillors expressing their concerns about the situation and offering guidance on alternative routes forward.

Smith also said he was worried for the future of his locally-employed disabled staff, saying “Staff at Real are concerned that they won’t keep their jobs if they transfer across to the new organisation. I’ve been informed that when POhWER took over a similar organisation’s service in the Midlands last year they transferred 9 people across and then made all but 3 redundant straight afterwards.” During the meeting Council officers suggested that all existing staff will be transferred to the new provider under the TUPE regulations, but afterwards Smith said “How can this be, when the amount they have bid is less than the cost of the currently-employed staff – either they will be running the service at a loss, or there will be redundancies”.

Dayne Martin, a client of the service, said: “The local support and advice means that I am able to continue to live my life as independently as possible, which will be made harder if a national organisation takes over that has no knowledge of my need or the area. Losing local services would isolate the local disability community, particularly those who cannot speak English as a first language.”

David S, one of the signatories to the petition, said “This is part of a worrying trend towards awarding contracts to large national organisations without regard to the quality of the service which users will receive or the impact these decisions have on the local organisation which loses out. Councils must strike a better balance between price on the one hand and, on the other, quality/track record/investment in local voluntary organisations which contribute much more to their communities than ‘outsiders’.”

Suleyman Nuur, an English- and Somali-speaking staff member said “Working at Real has meant that I am part of a diverse team who are working together towards a common goal, which is to support local disabled people. To work for an organisation that really understands the needs of disabled staff truly means a lot to me. Real has created a work environment of support, understanding and harmony and I am blessed to be part of it.”

Another staff member, Emma Preston-Dunlop, said “I can be truly myself working at Real; I’m disabled and LGBT and it’s simply a non-issue amongst my colleagues. The diversity of our team is our strength. Clients appreciate working with support staff who know what it’s like to live with impairments and disabilities, they appreciate the community languages we speak and the flexible hours we offer. In essence, we reflect the borough we serve and that’s how it should be – local services for local people.”

The Mayor indicated at his Cabinet meeting on 3 September that he would review the matter. It has yet to be announced when his final decision will be made.

Ends.

Lobby 2 Sep 14 local disabled people with Tower Hamlets First councillors Ohid Ahmed, Abjol Miah and Mahbub Alam     Lobby 2 Sep 14 local disabled people with Councillor Saunders, who led the call-in

Lobby 2 Sep 14 Mike's phone 899       Lobby 2 Sep 14 Mike's phone 900

Lobby 2 Sep 14 Mike's phone 893

Press contact details:

Mike Smith, Chief Executive Officer

(020) 7001 2172 or (07715) 760367

mike.smith@real.org.uk

 

Notes to editors:

  1. Real is a user-led organisation of disabled people and a registered charity, and has been around in one form or another for 20 years. Its membership comprises local disabled people, it currently employs 16 people and has 10 volunteers. 75% of its client-facing staff, and 100% of its board, are disabled. It provides a range of services to support local disabled people to live equally within society – see www.real.org.uk
  2. POhWER (http://www.pohwer.net/) is a national charity, based in Stevenage, which has a turnover of £10 million a year and unrestricted reserves of £850,000 (March 2013). It provides services in 59 local authorities around the country.
  3. The “Direct Payments Support Service” was re-commissioned last year at an estimated contract value of £354,000 per annum. Figures provided to Real under a Freedom of Information request show that POhWER’s bid of £199,206 was nearly £81,000 less than the next lowest bid (which itself was only 79% of the contract value) and the top five bids were all over £322,000, and all over 90% of the contract value.
  4. The service in question provides training and support for disabled and older people, and families with disabled children, to set up and manage their own direct payments: organising their own social care and support needs instead of having directly-provided services. For the last eight years the service has been provided by Real, the user-led organisation of disabled people in Tower Hamlets. Real’s latest client feedback results show incredibly high levels of satisfaction with the service they’ve provided, and council officers have confirmed to Real that they had no concerns about Real’s delivery previously.
  5. The online petition can be found on the 38° website here: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/p/keepitlocal
  6. The Mayor’s original executive decision can be found here: http://moderngov.towerhamlets.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=434&MId=5437&Ver=4
  7. The Overview and Scrutiny Committee’s relevant paperwork for decision tonight in agenda item 5.2 is here: http://moderngov.towerhamlets.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=327&MId=5348&Ver=4
  8. Real’s most recent client feedback included:
    • 100% agreed their support worker was friendly and helpful, with 63% strongly agreeing
    • 94% of those with an opinion agreed or strongly agreed that their support worker took time to understand and responded appropriately to their life circumstances when being helped
    • 100% agreed or strongly agreed they were given helpful information and support on how to manage direct payments
    • 100% of those with an opinion agreed or strongly agreed they were able to make more informed decisions about how their care and support needs are met
    • 95% agreed or strongly agreed the support they be given fitted in with their pace of work and needs
    • 93% of those with an opinion agreed or strongly agreed they were also given information on other services or topics that helped them improve their independence, get out more, or be involved in their community.
    • An interesting relative measure was that 79% agreed or strongly agreed that Real understood them and their life more than other organisations
    • 100% agreed they would recommend other people to get help from Real, with 74% strongly agreeing