Craig Dearden-Phillips: The sector should be the first stop for people in need

The model of state provision is broken and voluntary organisations are best placed to provide diverse solutions for a more multi-faceted population, says our columnist

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

I go to a lot of sector events these days where nearly everyone, even quite sensible people, are banging away about how the coalition is taking us to hell in a handcart. Amid redundancies, closures, vital projects lost and more redundancies, I can understand this. To a point. But some perspective is needed here. Blaming the coalition is to seriously misread the issue.

Two things need pointing out. First, this was coming. As a sector, we had been pumped up by 15 years of uninterrupted economic growth, which left us deeply vulnerable to changes in the economic weather. And by 2010, any new government knew it would immediately face two flashing red signals as it pulled out of the station - the economy and the runaway costs of the public sector. It is fantasy, in my view, to believe that charities wouldn't be getting an equivalent hammering with a fourth Labour government driving the train.

Second, the world is changing faster than many in the sector understand. Many people - most often my generation and above - forget that we are facing overdue structural changes in the way the UK addresses social need. They still see the 'voluntary sector' as a useful crack-filler for an all-embracing public sector. We're an 'and' solution, not a serious alternative.

That model is broken. The brutal truth is that, unless you're incredibly fortunate, you can't get a service from the state unless your problem comes in a box they recognise. Try being mentally ill and alcoholic. Learning-disabled and deaf. Or a perpetrator and a victim of crime. You'll find very little out there for you - except a bit in our sector, if you happen upon it.

The logic of a complex society is that we need a greater diversity of solutions for a population that has become far more multi-faceted than that of our grandparents' time: all sorts of organisations doing all sorts of things with all sorts of people.

We also need to support stuff that helps the sector's activities match up to need rather than being only, in effect, a supportive gesture. This can't be done 'in addition'. It needs cash that used to fund the state.

That is what we are, somewhat chaotically, moving to now. It's messy, it's difficult and it isn't helped by the economic situation or the lack of a proper plan from government. But underneath all of this there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for our sector to redefine itself as the first point of call for people in need.

And this should be the default position. Government grew as a provider when nobody was willing or able to take on that role. By the same logic, it needs now to revert to providing only where a civil society organisation cannot or will not do so. It can still plan, oversee and ensure a level field. But one provider normally brings only one solution. The United Kingdom, in the 2010s, is not a one-solution society. A million flowers need to bloom. The price for this is a far smaller state than most readers of Third Sector are comfortable with.

Contact Craig at craigdeardenphillips.com

Craig Dearden-Phillips is chief executive of Stepping Out and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Suffolk

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