Thousands back fight over supported living service changes in Sheffield

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Campaigners fighting plans to contract out services for vulnerable adults in Sheffield have collected thousands of signatures.

And they say they are on track to collect enough on their petition to trigger a full Sheffield Council debate.

The council is considering hiring a private firm to run the supported living service, which includes the city’s troubled learning disabilities department, with trade union Unison claiming it will be sold ‘to the cheapest bidder’.

The union says losing the contract and winding down the service would cost the NHS millions.

However, Moira Wilson, council interim director of care and support, said it had a ‘duty’ to get value for money.

Charlie Carruth, Unison regional organiser, said he was ‘fairly certain’ sufficient names would be collected on the petition to force a debate at a full council meeting in September –nearly 3,000 signatures have been collected with 5,000 needed to trigger the debate.

Mr Carruth said: “The fight continues. There have been suggestions we are scaremongering, but the costings don’t add up – if the NHS loses the contract it’s going to cost at least £6 million.”

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

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

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.”

But 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.”

The Sheffield Save Our NHS group said the process ‘opens up the service’ to organisations such as Care UK, where support workers in Doncaster transferred from the NHS last year have taken industrial action over changes to pay and conditions.