Editorial: How to lose friends and alienate people

It's never pleasant to watch a large and powerful entity crushing a small and powerless one.

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

But that's the spectacle we have been treated to recently as the Learning and Skills Council, the body that funds and plans training and non- university education for over-16-year-olds in England, has remorselessly pursued its court case against Kids in Communication, a small voluntary organisation based in Wolverhampton. The council, a £10.4bn quango, took it into its head that this tiny outfit with a staff of four and assets of £4,500 had failed to come up to scratch on a contract worth a mere £119,000. And it put in a legal claim for damages.

The NCVO worked behind the scenes, appealing for the council to get things into proportion and look for another solution, especially since, according to the umbrella body, the council has not acted in line with the Compact. That got precisely nowhere. Chief executives body Acevo urged the council to look at the wider picture and back off. That got the equivalent of two fingers as well. The Compact Commissioner declined to get involved, which surprised no one. And nothing has been heard from the two voluntary sector representatives on the council board.

In the end, it was Kids in Communications that blinked. Last Friday, rather than face the possibility that the judge would find against it and make an award that would put the organisation out of business, the directors clubbed together and raised £50,000 for an out-of-court settlement. This led to perhaps the most unpalatable remark in the whole affair, when the council's director of communications and strategy declared himself "delighted" with the result. No wonder the NCVO, which is not given to extreme language, has called this a "horrendous" case. The council has taken a very large hammer to crack a nut. If it had any decency, it would refund the settlement and apologise.

Of course public bodies have a duty to protect public funds, but they need to look at the wood rather than the trees. Public money is wasted hand over fist all the time. Was it really proportionate to pursue such a tiny sum? Was it worth the potential damage to reputation and future business? The council has 300 voluntary sector partners and says it is trying to do more work with the sector. Given the events of last week, that message will be drowned out as Kids in Communication urges the sector to boycott the council and the NCVO advises people to "think very carefully" before doing business with it.

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