Comment: We're still on an uneven playing field

Cast your minds back to 2002. The Government had just published the findings of its cross-cutting review of the role of the voluntary sector in service delivery. I was a member of the steering group for the review and was eager to see how the recommendations would pan out.

John Knight
John Knight

Fast forward to 2007 and chief executives body Acevo is launching an independent inquiry into why only two of the 16 contracts for Pathways to Work, the Department for Work and Pensions' programme to get people off incapacity benefit and into work, were awarded to voluntary organisations last month. Why? The optimism of 2002 is now proving difficult to justify.

Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, said the tendering process was a "debacle" and that the sector was "comprehensively stuffed" during the process. Perhaps he was referring to the confusion about whether Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) regulations, governing the transfer of staff between employers, applied. It was reported that Work Directions UK, the private subsidiary of an Australian multinational that won the most contracts, did not include the cost of Tupe in its bid. Voluntary sector bidders did. If this is the case, the ubiquitous uneven playing field persists. There is, understandably, resentment and disappointment across the sector at these events.

There is also the fear these events might signal that the Government intends to award its service delivery contracts to 'for-profit' companies, rather than the voluntary sector. If so, this appears to fly in the face of Government rhetoric about helping the sector to play a greater role in civil society, not least from Gordon Brown only a few weeks ago.

We can all be confident that the Acevo inquiry, chaired by Dame Mavis MacDonald, will be evidence-based and transparent. I hope its conclusion will be carefully considered by work and pensions secretary Peter Hain and third sector minister Phil Hope. Until then, I suggest we all shut up and don't compromise the inquiry's integrity - and let Mavis get on with her work. That includes me.

- John Knight is head of policy and campaigns at Leonard Cheshire:


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