Council thinks again over POhWER contract


newslatestA local authority has been persuaded to think again over its decision to award a contract to a national charity at the expense of a local disabled people’s organisation (DPO).

Real has been providing direct payments support to disabled people in the London borough of Tower Hamlets for eight years, but was facing possible closure after losing out in a “competitive procurement exercise” to the national charity POhWER.

Real accused POhWER of “unfair competition” by using its financial might – it has an annual turnover of nearly £10 million a year – to win the contract provisionally, with a bid of £199,000 for a contract the council had valued at £354,000 a year.

Real put in its own bid of £353,000, and scored the highest of all seven bidders on “quality”, while its most recent survey of service-users found 100 per cent of those questioned agreed they had been given helpful information and support on how to manage direct payments.

More than 40 banner-waving disabled people and their supporters lobbied councillors outside the council offices last week in protest at the decision to award the contract to POhWER.

In a “very unusual” move, the council’s overview and scrutiny committee voted unanimously later that evening to ask the independent elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, to reconsider his decision to award the contract to POhWER.

Rahman has now agreed to look again at the award of the contract.

He said: “Following the decision of overview and scrutiny, I await a further report from officers which will take account of the concerns raised at the meeting.

“I myself raised similar concerns as the petitioners when presented with the outcome of this procurement process.

“I will review and reconsider my decision in the light of any new and legally relevant information.”

Mike Smith, chief executive of Real, said: “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 seven 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.”

Real 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.”

Dayne Martin, a client of the service, said: “Losing local services would isolate the local disability community, particularly those who cannot speak English as a first language.”

But POhWER’s chair has refused to pledge that his organisation would stop competing against local DPOs for contracts.

Nick Goss, a leading disabled equality and diversity consultant, told Disability News Service (DNS): “I cannot make that pledge.”

He said POhWER had nothing to apologise for in the way it had tendered for business, and insisted that his organisation was “not on some kind of crusade of UK domination” and was not a “monster wanting to take over the country.”

But he refused to comment on Tower Hamlets because it was “still going through the process” of awarding the contract.

Goss also admitted that only 45 per cent of POhWER’s trustees were disabled people, even though his chief executive, Damian Brady, claimed in an interview with DNS last month that all but one of the board members were disabled. Brady has now apologised for the error.

All of Real’s board members are disabled people, as well as three-quarters of its client-facing staff.

But Goss said: “I am disabled, I am a service-user and I really recognise the importance of local organisations.

“What I am really keen to do is look at how we can support them and capacity build them, how we can get them into a position – if they are not in a position already – where they can compete and tender for contracts.”

He added: “It is not our business objective to take work away from DPOs.”

But when DNS asked if that was what POhWER had done in Tower Hamlets, he said: “We don’t take work away from anyone, the contracts are awarded by the commissioners.”

When it was suggested that competing against a DPO that already has a contract and is performing well in its own local area was not working with them but competing against them and potentially putting them out of business, he said: “At the end of the day it is up to the commissioners to award the contract.”

Brady said POhWER had three other direct payments support contracts, in Buckinghamshire, Sandwell and Shropshire, each one secured through a competitive tendering exercise.

In Sandwell, POhWER displaced an existing user-led organisation, taking on nine existing members of staff and then making six of them redundant

Brady said it had been “necessary to reduce our staffing levels after taking on the Sandwell contract as a result of the financial model ordained by the borough in the tender”.

In some parts of the country, said Goss – such as in Richmond, south-west London – POhWER owns and runs an advocacy contract but works with local user-led organisations, which carry out “frontline delivery”, with POhWER providing support and “back office” functions.

Goss said POhWER was now putting together a new “programme of initiatives to look at how we can support DPOs but also individual disabled people who may want to sit on boards, may want to become part of a DPO, or maybe set one up”.

He added: “POhWER has a very positive, pro-active approach to working with DPOs. We don’t only want to work with them, we want to help them develop as well.”

But Smith, former disability commissioner with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “I think they are being more than a little disingenuous blaming commissioners for this outcome.

“Based on information we obtained using a Freedom of Information Act request, POhWER bid £122,794 per year less than the average of the top five bids, and £139,832 per year less than they needed to in order to win overall.

“So by bidding so extraordinarily low they left commissioners with little choice. I just can’t reconcile their statements to be supporting DPOs with a ‘positive, proactive approach’ with their actions.

“But perhaps that’s what you get from an organisation that is evidently not a user-led organisation of disabled people by any recognised standard.”

11 September 2014