'Right to Request' tender collapses

The DoH tender to provide support to NHS staff wishing to set up social enterprises has been suddenly withdrawn.

The collapse of this tender will have come as no surprise to social enterprise developers engaged with the NHS - but the slow take-up of the 'right to request' is not because social enterprise goes 'over the heads' of frontline staff as one senior NHS manager patronisingly claimed.

The problem is much simpler than this: it is the failure of the DoH to deal clearly and honestly with the NHS pensions issue. A survey of PCTs in April revealed that 'the biggest [stumbling block for frontline staff exercising their ‘right to request' to set up a social enterprise] is uncertainty over NHS pension rights and benefits'.

In a number of places, such as its official Guide to the Right to Request, the DoH lays out clearly the many contracting routes open to social enterprise, including the so-called 'PMS' contract forms that can provide proper NHS pension scheme membership. Except that – you guessed it – when you actually come to the contract negotiation you find that those forms of contract are no longer really available for social enterprise.

The fact is that far from smoothing the path of social enterprise, it is now almost impossible to set up a social enterprise within the NHS pension scheme (although existing staff already in the pension scheme will probably be able to remain in it).

The DoH (Treasury) has two absolutely conflicting agendas in this: it wants the effective service delivery that social enterprise can bring, but it also wants to get people out of the NHS pension scheme (or at least prevent new people getting in).

There was supposed to be new guidance on pensions and social enterprise last month, but I do not have high hopes either that it will appear or that it will be clear, honest and accessible - much less that it will address the core issue (which is NOT the risk of loss of personal financial benefits but the loss of the feeling of still being part of the NHS family).

Somebody needs to tell senior NHS managers that this is THE dealbreaker - to stop patronising their staff - and that what's needed here is a social enterprise model that gives frontline staff both the freedom to deliver services in the better ways they can already see AND remain within the NHS family.