OPINION: Trustees feel weight of report

PETER STANFORD, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

Private Action, Public Benefit, the report of Tony Blair's Strategy Unit on charities, has lately become my bedtime reading, displacing Nigella's glorious Forever Summer. Or should I say glorious Nigella's Forever Summer.

No matter. One of the report's recommendations was to make it easier for charities to trade. Encouraging entrepreneurialism, it calls it, and suggests that the current 14.6 per cent of third sector income earned by trade could increase.

The problem is how to structure that trading and the report places responsibility for that firmly on the shoulders of trustees. Just such a dilemma has indeed beached itself on my desk this week. At Aspire, we train personal assistants to work with people with spinal cord injury.

But between the individuals who emerge from our training courses and the people who need their services, stand a plethora of agencies which make a profit out of bringing the two together. One of our disabled trustees, fed up of forking out to such agencies, is keen for us to set up our own.

Fine in principle, but the devil's in the detail. Are we talking about a non-profit body, aiming simply to pass on our expenses to users? Or a not-for-profit body making a modest pound out of its work, but ploughing it all back into the training? Or a hybrid where different users are charged different rates depending on ability to pay? That entails means testing, one of the most hated features of state social service provision.

For what it is worth, my instinct is against means testing. It can put off the genuinely needy who don't want to share every intimate detail of their wallets with well-off strangers. Yet without it, I have found from painful experience, you can end up being ripped off.

So after all that night-time reading, I'm no nearer a solution. For all its talk of making matters simpler, the Strategy Unit seems content to heap yet more obligations to make finely-balanced and technical judgements on already hard-pressed and usually amateur trustees.

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