Editorial: Partnership does not buy the state a willing poodle

Stephen Cook

As the voluntary sector works increasingly in partnership with government, and derives a growing proportion of its income from public funds, it's possible to detect a slightly proprietorial attitude from politicians.

This came through in Alan Milburn's recent promulgation of a partnership-rich agenda for the third Labour term that he believes is on the way.

There's an assumption that charities and voluntary organisations will jump at the chance to expand their activities. And there's a lurking implication that they'll be so glad to get the contracts and grants that they won't look too closely at the policies and principles involved.

Well, not so fast. We all know that the Government has been taking liberties in its attempt to crack down on bogus asylum seekers. The latest example was a Home Office amendment to the Asylum Bill earlier this month that proposes that failed asylum seekers who cannot yet return home and are destitute, will be required to do community work in return for accommodation provided by the state. As Asylum Aid points out, this looks suspiciously like a breach of the article of the European Convention of Human Rights that forbids forced labour.

So it's gratifying to see the voluntary sector, including Community Service Volunteers, lining up to say (in suitably tactful language) that if the proposal ever comes to pass, they wouldn't have anything to do with organising 'voluntary' work of this kind.

It's a timely reminder that voluntary organisations should beware of succumbing to the 'poodle effect'. They are a vital component in the system which checks and balances the political executive, and should sometimes be prepared to turn round and give a sharp nip to the hand which may also be feeding them.

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