Standing up for families – the priority of Mencap’s new CEO

Jan Tregelles has kept a low profile since her appointment as Mencap’s CEO in January, concentrating on what she describes as a ‘complete re-engineering’ of the organisation. Seán Kelly asked her what this involved, in particular how she managed to reduce operating costs by £6 million. She admits she doesn’t seek the limelight but is prepared to step into it to stand up for people with learning difficulties and their families.

After almost a year as CEO and acting CEO of National Mencap Jan Tregelles accepts that she has kept a pretty low public profile.

“Yes,” she says, laughing, “but I have been very busy since January. This has involved what she describes as a  ‘complete re-engineering’ of the organisation, simplifying the governance structure and creating a new executive. She has also reduced staff in a number of areas and created new HR and Quality teams.

As an internal appointment Jan can lay claim to a good knowledge of the organisation. She first worked for Mencap in 1983 and re-joined it in 1997. She admits that in one sense her career has been narrow since she has always worked in organisations with people with learning disabilities but, within that, she says, she has covered a wide range, including personal support, management and housing. She feels she brings a good understanding of the issues and also, as she puts it, “how fashions change in learning disabilities”.

Most needy

Since her appointment Jan has created a new strategy which focuses Mencap’s work on the most needy, in particular, on the prime aim over the next three years of supporting families. She reminds me that two-thirds of people with learning disabilities are supported by family carers who often continue until they are elderly. She mentions one family carer who, at the age of 98, said: “Well, I have still got a couple of years in me but then I will need some help”.

Remembering old debates from the past I ask her how making family support the top priority has gone down with self-advocates connected with the organisation. Jan says there have been no negative reactions. “Reactions have been absolutely positive,” she says.

Mencap is concerned about the Children and Families Bill currently going through Parliament which contains an educational cut-off at 18. Jan says: “We all know what a tough application of that cut-off there will be”. Mencap has been lobbying for a later cut-off to help families with that transition.

The press release announcing Jan’s appointment said that in her previous role as Director of Personal Support she had increased the organisation’s business by £100million since 2002. I ask her how she had achieved this.  “The answer is having excellent services,” she says. It’s a good answer, simultaneously giving credit to front-line staff whilst promoting Mencap services and refuting any implication that Mencap might simply be good at tender-winning tricks. In fact Jan says that the majority of that increase has not been due to winning tenders but to organic growth, small-scale additions in hours or new placements which come in below the tender-threshold. I suggest that, nevertheless, Mencap must work at a competitive price and to my surprise she says simply £13.49 – the average charge per hour for a Mencap service across the country.

Jan is happy for this figure to be printed, saying it is effectively in the public domain already (but remember, you read it here first!). However, she does not want me to go away thinking Mencap will accept any work. “We will move out of an area if we need to, for example in  Cumbria. If we don’t think it can work properly we will give the contract back”.

Management overhead

I ask about cuts and Jan acknowledges that Mencap has had to make significant cuts, taking £6million out of their operating costs of £180million. The management overhead has been reduced from 10 to 7 per cent. Mencap’s Business Processing Centre helped the organisation identify and chop out anything that does not add value.

A long-term donor who gives Mencap a regular fiver wrote to her on hearing of her appointment, asking if he was now paying for her salary. Jan decided to ring him personally. “I told him I can’t justify my salary but I can tell you that every penny you send us is spent on something worthwhile, because we have cut out the things that weren’t worth paying for”.

Does Mencap use any external standards for quality assurance or any of the new systems for personalisation such as the increasingly popular ‘iPlanit’? No, she says. Mencap has created its own systems for both quality assurance and personalisation. She does not believe that external inspection can create quality if the team are not committed. “You can’t inspect quality in, you have to own it,” she says. Nevertheless, Jan is proud to point out that Mencap has achieved a score of 93.4 per cent in compliance with CQC’s core standards which means they are the second highest scorer in the country.

I comment that Mencap is involved in so many things – providing services, research, campaigns, representing people with learning disabilities, supporting families, etc. Doesn’t this sometimes confuse people about what the organisation is about? Jan feels that being involved in people’s lives over a range of areas is a strength. “We know how things affect people because we are involved in so many areas of their lives”. She also believes it is important for Mencap to run services.“It would be hard to criticise other services if we didn’t run them ourselves, within the available financial envelope”.

What is the main message Mencap is  giving to Government? “To avoid further financial cuts. We have said, keep the pounds that are currently there because unless you get it right for this group, you are storing up the cost of loss”.

On Winterbourne View Hospital and Assessment and Treatment units, Jan says:“We have made a very public statement saying we don’t think those units are right”. She remains concerned that, even though the Joint Improvement Programme now have a list of the 47 people who were at Winterbourne View, their current circumstances are not known.

Free service

Meanwhile, Mencap has been trying to identify where those people are now and has offered a free service to the Government to provide support for them. This has so far not been taken up. Jan says: “If we cannot get things right for those 47 people what chance is there for others?”

Mencap is currently working on a Manifesto which it will publish in early 2014 to show political parties what is needed. It will aim to speak for the needs of the 1.4 million people in the country and their families. They are hoping to partner with the NHS Confederation, charities and others, such as sports organisations. “Mencap is ready to partner with anyone who wants to come with us,” Jan says. She recognises that the Manifesto may not achieve all its aims but is promising herself a celebratory gin and tonic if they achieve one thing that will make things better for people with learning disabilities.

Although they are trying to model inclusion at all levels in the organisation Jan admits that people with learning disabilities are not currently involved in senior management. There is currently one trustee with learning disabilities on the Board of Trustees and another is being recruited. People are also involved in Tenant Forums, in the recruitment of staff and employed as journalists and campaigners like Ciara Lawrence (pictured with Jan). Trustees also receive surveys of large numbers of people with learning disabilities and of family members to inform them of issues. This sounded good but perhaps Mencap should consider in future having a regular mechanism for people using services to access the Board directly.

Mencap recently launched a £10million bond to raise investment money which the charity can use for housing. Investors get an annual 4 per cent return, as well as helping a worthwhile cause. Did Jan think this was a risk for Mencap? She says, “No, it is based on a tested model of housing. We understand the risks involved”. The bond provides housing money that would not otherwise be available. “We have to find new ways. The money is not in the system and we don’t have it”.

Being CEO of Mencap, Jan says, is her dream job. I comment that Mencap has ensured it has a new CEO who really knows about the organisation and people with learning disabilities. Jan replies enthusiastically: “Yes, my career has completely been with people with learning disabilities. I am passionate about learning disabilities and about what you can achieve in this role. I mean to use it to achieve things for people”.

Ordinary person

She adds: “I am an ordinary person. I live in Hackney. I shop at Lidl’s. I don’t seek the limelight but I am prepared to stand up for this cause”.

It’s been a tough year for Jan as she sets the house straight but she will soon be stepping into the spotlight to stand up for people with learning disabilities. That would be something for everyone to celebrate with gin and tonics!

On 19 November in the House of Lords, Baroness Boothroyd raised the following question: What progress has the government made in implementing the assurances to the victims of abuse at Winterbourne View Hospital, set out in the Department of Health’s report Transforming Care?

Seán Kelly was until recently CEO of the Elfrida Society. He is now a free lance writer and photographer.