Fears for future of Sheffield disability unit

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A campaign has been launched opposing plans to contract out Sheffield Council’s troubled learning disabilities service.

The council is considering hiring a private firm to run the department – with trade union Unison claiming it will be ‘auctioned off to the cheapest bidder’.

Josie Bennett, the head of the unit, has been suspended since last year amid serious concerns about the service’s finances.

An audit forecast the service was overspending its £35 million budget by as much as £7m.

Moira Wilson, the council’s interim director of care and support, said the authority had a ‘duty to test the market’ to ensure the NHS was providing value for money.

However, Sue Highton, secretary for Unison’s Sheffield community health branch, said: “This service is provided to some of the most vulnerable and needy members of our society and their families.

“The concept of openly encouraging low bids to run such a difficult and sensitive service is reprehensible.”

Ms Bennett, employed jointly by the council and Sheffield Health and Social Care, is suspended while an investigation is carried out into how her department was handling its budget.

She is not suspected of wrongdoing and was suspended from her work with the council only.

Ms Wilson said: “We are committed to providing high-quality services.

“We have a duty to test the market to make sure the supported living services we buy from the care trust and other organisations are providing value for money for the increasing numbers of people with complex needs.

“If alternative providers can provide an equal or better service for less money, then we will work with residents to explore a change in provider.”

n A public meeting to discuss the plans is being held tomorrow from 1pm at St Mary’s Church, Bramall Lane, Highfield, Sheffield.