Interview: Rachael Maskell

The Unite national officer says charity workers don't want to take over public services

Rachael Maskell
Rachael Maskell

As the national officer for 60,000 voluntary sector workers in the 1.5 million-strong public sector union Unite, Rachael Maskell finds herself fighting on two fronts as public spending cuts bite and public service reform gathers pace.

On the one hand, Maskell is flooded with calls for help from sector bodies that are losing government, corporate or voluntary funding and being forced to make redundancies. The legal aid sector, for example, is facing cuts of £350m from its £2bn budget.

On the other hand, she is holding the line against a proposition that might actually save jobs in the sector and give it a stronger future - that voluntary organisations should be seeking to run more public services as part of the government's big society and localism agendas.

On the first front, she says, leaders of charities that receive public funding were arguing at a Trades Union Congress seminar last month that they needed someone to fight their corner.

Charity leaders are "too scared to bite the hand that feeds them", she says. "They were saying that if they raise their voices, they know they will be next in line for cuts - that when the bids come up, they won't be considered.

"As a result, there's fear - there's definite fear - and they are losing that really fantastic advocacy role they had. That is a massive loss to our society."

Being vocal

At the seminar, she says,there was also criticism of some leading sector organisations for not being vocal enough on the sector's behalf.

Although she says the local infrastructure body Navca has spoken out, she speculates that others are cautious because they receive some government funding.

"There is a very clear message from the conference, and also from our private discussions, that they believe organisations such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and Acevo really do need to start speaking out harder against these cuts because they will be listened to and they have the ability to stop some of the damage."

On the second front, Maskell argues that Unite's opposition to the sector taking over more public services is neither ideological nor the result of the fact that most of Unite's members work in the public sector. She says it is, instead, a reflection of what the union hears from people working on the voluntary sector front line.

She says it is wrong to move essential services from the more secure environment of the public sector, where sustainable funding allows for strategic planning, to an insecure funding environment, and she feels the sector is being used as a "Trojan horse for privatisation".

Shaping public services

The sector, Maskell says, should be a "strong partner of public services", and its independence gives it the ability to shape public services. "When a not-for-profit takes over the running of a public service, who are the advocates to tell them that they are not getting it right or how they could improve it?" she asks. "I think that's what we are reaping now: the sector has not got a voice because it is tied up in the machine and is really just another arm of the state, controlled by contract in terms of what it delivers."

Maskell was a physiotherapist in Norfolk before she joined Unite 15 years ago and clearly has no qualms about putting people's noses out of joint. She has represented the voluntary sector for seven years and feels that, with an estimated £5bn being taken out of the sector, the big society is "a fantasy that has turned into an absolute nightmare".

Unite is calling for a review of the cuts before this month's Budget and is supporting the TUC's March for the Alternative on 26 March.

"I think if the resources are not there in the Budget, we can say: 'Look, the big society is dead, long live our society. And let's get on with it the way the sector's always got on with it.'"


2004: National officer for community, youth workers and not-for-profit sector, Unite

2003: National officer for equalities, Unite

1999: Regional officer, Unite

1998: Organiser, TUC

1994: Senior physiotherapist in acute medicine, Norfolk and Norwich NHS Trust

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