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September 21, 2011

Has the sector lost its way?

Next week, Senscot is hosting an event to explore whether social enterprise is at risk of being derailed . Has the enterprise ethos and the relentless pursuit of profit begun to undermine the core values which many believe should be at the heart of this alternative business model? Are some social enterprises beginning to adopt exactly the same predatory, expansionist and market driven behaviour as their private sector ‘cousins’. Brian Wilson, writing in the West Highland Free Press, thinks they are

Brian Wilson, West Highland Free Press, 26th August

Two questions occurred to me while reading Free Press coverage of the respite care controversy in Skye and Lochalsh. Who are Carr-Gomm Scotland and why do they want to replace the local Crossroads organisation as service provider? 

The first one is easy to answer, with a little research. The second is more puzzling. Carr-Gomm Scotland are routinely described as a “not for profit” organisation which is another way of saying that they are not in it for the money. This is a significant credential given that “care” and the pursuit of profit are no strangers to each other in contemporary society. 

Describing themselves as “not for profit” is intended to distinguish Carr-Gomm Scotland from the commercial sector. But that only makes my question more pertinent. Why should an organisation which is not motivated by profit wish to displace another organisation which is not motivated by profit? And why should they be prepared to trample on local feelings in order to do so? 

At that point, the question becomes rhetorical. They should not be prepared to do so. Or at very least, they are obliged to give an explanation of their ambitions. Expansionism for its own sake does not seem like much of a reason. But perhaps Carr-Gomm Scotland believe that respite services in Skye and Lochalsh are being delivered to such an unsatisfactory standard at present that they have a duty to improve them? 

If that is Carr-Gomm Scotland’s view, they should state it and give reasons. It seems unlikely, however, that they would find much support within Skye and Lochalsh. So if we rule that one out, what are we left with? Why do Carr-Gomm Scotland,unmotivated by profit, want to descend upon Skye and Lochalsh where, to put it bluntly, there appears to be absolutely no demand for their presence? 

At this point, it may be helpful to return to the question: “Who are Carr Gomm Scotland”? According to their own website, they have existed as “a separate charity” from the Carr- Gomm Society since 2002. During the intervening period, they have extended their reach to areas which include Aberdeenshire, Perthshire and Argyll. According to Councillor Margaret Davidson, chair of Highland Council’s social work commmittee, they are “an excellent and highly regarded company”.

All of which is fine. But as has become crystal clear, Skye and Lochalsh is united in  the view that the present incumbents are also “excellent and highly regarded”, so no gain there. Why change one “excellent and highly regarded” provider for another, particularly when Crossroads is a local organisation, well known to the people who have made that judgement, while Carr-Gomm Scotland certainly does not fit that description?

The history of the Carr-Gomm Society should be cautionary as they pursue their pan-Scotland masterplan. The founder of the whole outfit was Richard Carr-Gomm, an interesting figure from a privileged London background who gave up his Army career to found a series of societies, initially to care for for the lonely elderly. Carr Gomm was an evangelical Christian who applied his faith in a humanitarian cause. 

In 1957, he and his associates founded the Abbeyfield Society and they were pioneers in the field. Abbeyfield Societies sprang up all over the country until, by 1963, the movement had 180 houses. A network of local organisations required a national headquarters and this led to a split between Carr- Gomm and the people who were by then running the society. 

According to the ‘Daily Telegraph’ obituary in 2008: “Carr- Gomm felt that centralisation had led to a loss of some of the idealistic, volunteer spirit of the early days, with a growing lack of co-ordination between the central committee and people running the homes on a dayto- day basis.” Maybe Carr-Gomm Scotland would do well to reflect on that little bit of history. 

Crossroads is a network of  essential services. Where people want to retain these locally-based services, what business is it of a national organisation to  what business is it of the local authority to facilitate that process? I think Richard Carr-Gomm would have asked the same questions. 

There was another line in his obituary which struck a chord. Carr- Gomm was eventually banned from the organisation he had founded because his colleagues were fed up with him behaving “as if I had invented lonely old age”. Carr Gomm Scotland should beware the same trap. As a not-for-profit organisation, surely they should have the humility to acknowledge the work of others and concentrate on places where there are gaps in service, rather than trying to dominate the entire respite map of Scotland. 

One does not have to read very closely between the lines to discern the usefulness of Carr Gomm Scotland to Highland Council’s agenda. The most serious aspect of the proposed changes concerns the savage cut in respite hours allocated to Skye and Lochalsh — a cut of two-thirds on existing Crossroads provision. Would Crossroads Skye  and Lochalsh have implemented that process without protest or drawing public attention to what was going on? I very much doubt it, and that is much to their credit. But for Carr-Gomm Scotland, that is the deal they have signed up to and they will get on with it.

It is interesting to see where the hours lost in Skye and Lochalsh are to go. Surprise, surprise — the big gainers will be Inverness and its environs. Once again, the periphery will pay for the growth and aggrandisement of the Highland capital. The idea that an established service of this kind in Skye and Lochalsh should be “levelled-down” in order to accommodate the needs of an expanding city is pernicious. If Inverness keeps spreading, will all public services on the Highland periphery be cut to pay the price?

As I always predicted, devolution has become the enemy of localism. Highland NHS Board (which was also party to this decision) now runs from John o’Groats to Machrihanish. Highland Council, faced with cuts from Holyrood, finds it easier to deal with a single Edinburgh-based organisation than with a network of local ones. How far is this process to continue? If everything moves to the centres, what is to be left at the edges 

Fortunately, in this particular case, there is a straightforward solution. Carr-Gomm Scotland should honour the name of their founder by pulling out of the Skye and Lochalsh contract. Then everyone — including, one hopes, the currently silent local politicians — could get on with resisting the cuts that are being imposed on this vital service, without the involvement of an organisation hired by Highland Council to do its bidding.