SCOTTISH councils will have to bid against private companies to continue to provide care services under the Government’s plans for a National Care Service (NCS).

The NCS bill would centralise £4.3 billion of public spending – one-third of Scottish councils’ total budget – and require councils to bid against private interests in order to win a share of the funding they currently control.

The published bill – which ministers have stressed is only a “framework” – will see an unspecified number of local boards established and tasked with procuring care services.

Unlike the similarly named National Health Service (NHS), the NCS will not see services nationalised by the Government. Instead, councils and firms will bid to provide care services to a standard set by ministers and overseen by local health boards.

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Speaking at a fringe event at the SNP conference in Aberdeen, Social Care Minister Kevin Stewart said: “This is not about the nationalisation of services, it is about national oversight to end the idea of a postcode lottery.”

Talking to The National after the event, Stewart said he “absolutely” wants to see councils involved in providing social care under the NCS, but confirmed they would have to bid against other parties to do so.

“They will have to, under the current situation, take part in ethical procurement services,” he said.

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Asked if this would be the case under the final version of the bill – and not the current “framework” – Stewart said: “They need to get involved in the co-design and we’ll have to discuss that on the way through.

“But at the heart of all of this, I want to see councils continue to deliver services. I’ve made no bones about that from the very beginning. Some of the best services that are provided in some parts of the country are council-run services, I want that to continue.

“We want to create a system whereby yes, there are going to be national high-quality standards, but local delivery, local flexibility is still important, and I hope councils will come on board and play a part in that.”

The National: Kevin Stewart, the minister for local government and housing. Photo: Scottish Government

Stewart (above) told SNP members that the decision on whether to include justice services in the NCS’s remit was still under consideration.

Asked during the fringe event if there was “any place for profit” in the service, Stewart said he did not want to see “excess profits in offshore companies in the NCS or anywhere else”.

The minister further said that there were currently “1200 different employers in adult social care” in Scotland, which has made it extremely difficult to standardise pay or conditions.

He told the fringe event that he had seen the impacts of poor conditions in the care sector on members of his own family.

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“It’s personal for me but it’s also personal for hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of folk across the country who have friends, family working in care,” he later told The National.

“This is a profession that has not been looked up to. These people are so important in terms of the care and support they provide, and that is why we have to do better.”

Stewart said that development opportunities in the care sector, pay, and conditions would all be improved and made nationally “equal” through the implementation of the NCS. However, as Highland councillor Lyndsey Johnston told the fringe event during questions from the audience: “The elephant in the room is Brexit.”

The Black Isle councillor said that the Leave vote had decimated staffing levels in care across the Highlands due to the number of EU nationals who had worked in the sector.

Calling Brexit “vandalism”, Stewart raised the case of one Perthshire-based care provider who lost 40% of their staff in the wake of the UK’s vote to Leave the European bloc.

Johnston further raised the issue of interconnectivity of services, telling members that her father-in-law had recently died in an ambulance outside a hospital while waiting for a bed.

In a heartfelt moment, the councillor called for the NHS and NCS to be closely linked in order to combat “bed blocking”, where people take up hospital beds they don’t necessarily need while waiting for the next stage of their care to become available.