Opinion: Running public services is a risky venture

John Knight, head of policy and campaigns at Leonard Cheshire

The view within government that the voluntary sector represents a rich seam of potential for delivering and enhancing public services is not universally welcome. It has both critics and supporters.

One area in which Whitehall would like the sector to play an increasing role is the delivery of employment support through 'welfare to work' programmes.

The Welfare Reform Bill, currently on its way through Parliament, contains clauses designed to entice the sector into providing contracted services to help recipients of incapacity benefit - and its proposed replacement, employment support allowance - back into work. This is a high-risk adventure for our sector.

Disabled people are significantly excluded from the workforce. As a result, many live in poverty, which is exacerbated by the extra costs of living with a disability, as revealed in In the Balance, Leonard Cheshire's report into disability and debt. So advising those who want to find work could be one way of helping disabled people to improve their quality of life.

But it's not that simple.

The proposals for employment support allowance raise the spectre of already poor people facing cuts in their benefits if they fail to engage with job-seeking support in the way the Government wants. This means that charities providing such services could end up being complicit with a system that is punishing and impoverishing the people they work with.

Of course, it may well be the case that a voluntary sector organisation can provide support for a certain group of claimants far more sensitively and expertly than the state could. But if an individual is not engaging, for whatever reason - a fluctuating condition, or perhaps because thresholds for engagement are unrealistic - it may fall on the charity to submit a report to a job centre that results in the individual's benefits being slashed. This not only has moral and legal implications, but it could also turn donors off.

The Welfare Reform Bill goes further, offering control over benefit sanctions to consortia that might include voluntary sector providers. In this case, a charity might not only be complicit in a decision to cut benefits, it could be directly involved.

In a regime where the Government insists on sticks as well as carrots, the sector must move forward with its eyes wide open. Being guided by our charitable purpose may never have been so crucial.

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