John Tizard, director of public services at the CBI, told a joint CBI/Social Market Foundation fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference in Brighton on Monday that there should be more thought about how public service markets will take shape in the coming years. He raised the question: "Why not private and voluntary sector partnerships?"
Tizard warned the voluntary sector to tread carefully in its relationship with the Government in taking on a bigger service-delivery role. "It needs to be careful that it doesn't become overdependent on, or an agent of, the state," he said. If so, he added, it stands to lose its innovative qualities and right to campaign.
Ann Rossiter, director of the Social Market Foundation, raised the idea of 'competitive neutrality' between public service providers, echoing Government promises made in its election manifesto earlier this year.
Tizard agreed there should be a level playing field between providers from all sectors. "If the Government wants to use the voluntary sector more, it needs to treat it as it treats the private sector," he said.
But Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, said he was worried that debate on public service reform was dominated by private versus public sector arguments. He said he was surprised that the Government hadn't taken more interest in the contributions the voluntary sector has to make to public services. He also suggested that PFI contracts could be extended to charities. The meeting was attended by junior health minister Liam Byrne.
Maintaining the independence and innovation of voluntary organisations was a theme that underlined several fringe meetings at this year's conference, including a meeting hosted by the Association of Charitable Foundations.
At a fringe event organised by End Child Poverty, Fun In Action, a Brighton-based charity that provides 'befrienders' for impoverished children, said it feared the sector could get "swamped" by statutory services.
The charity suggested that the voluntary sector's particular quality in taking account of end users' individual needs might be lost if they were shoehorned into the commissioning process.
- See Editorial, page 22.