As a life-long volunteer, charity worker and passionate advocate of the third sector, friends are surprised when I roll my eyes at the Prime Minister’s/Health Secretary’s/Education Secretary’s/Environment Secretary’s (delete depending on which proposal is currently under discussion) enthusiastic endorsement of the charity sector to run public services.
Is it because I don’t believe the third sector should run public sector provision? Of course not-many Trust members run non maintained special schools and other outstanding specialist provision contracted by the state. The Trust itself wins government contracts and is working with members on winning more.
Do I agree with the public sector unions that charities taking over contracts put public sector workers out of jobs? Well, of course, there is an inevitability that if a charity wins a local contract that public sector staff may lose roles- but equally many public sector staff find employment in the voluntary sector and many charity workers are being laid off as local public sector provision pulls back charity grants to save staff posts. I don’t care who the employer is as long as people are skilled for the job and there is enough money to commission services (and of course this latter is a much bigger risk to public services than charity contracts).
Am I concerned about the changing face of the voluntary sector? Maybe a bit – care must be taken to maintain our campaigning work because, despite the protests of MPs like Charlie Elphicke, this work has always and will always be an essential part of charity work and one of our best routes to supporting our users. The Trust itself is an example of how public funding in some areas is no barrier to effective change in policy.
The worry that the ‘publicisation’ of charities is there – but that only applies to relatively small number of contract driven charities who dominate the ACEVO and NCVO debates. There will always be thousands of small, national and local, volunteer engaging charities picking up those that are failed by public funded services and who will never get any government money. Many of the Trust’s smaller members provide excellent volunteer run family support programmes that take little or no public funding.
My key concern is that such statements are at best uninformed and at worst deliberately disingenuous. Yes the voluntary sector will pick up some of the work but the proportion that it does will be tiny compared to the private sector who already receive billions to run public services and are circling for even more. And even the term voluntary sector is not accurate because there are charities who will plough funding from contacts back into core mission and then there are those corporates who will, legally I should stress, set up special purpose vehicles that sound all warm and fluffy or partner with voluntary sector partners to win bids and then cream off profits.
My personal views on the use of market forces to improve public services are still forming – that there is a role for charities is for me quite clear. Just let’s not pretend that this will be more than it is and let’s really understand what our USP and added value is before we warmly welcome any more Minister announcements.