Editorial: If the politicians like it, it can't be all good

Stephen Cook, editor

Our story last week that communities minister David Miliband and Hazel Blears at the Home Office have given their blessing to the Acevo report Communities in Control immediately brings to mind the saying "beware of Greeks bearing gifts".

Classical students will recall that the priest Laocoon uttered this warning during the siege of Troy, when a massive wooden horse - apparently a goodwill present from the besieging forces - appeared outside the gates. The Acevo report is a blueprint for a further large-scale transfer of public services to the voluntary sector. If the bossy social engineers of the present Government are in favour of it, we should immediately be on our guard.

If this sounds a trifle suspicious, consider the forces at play. Parts of the voluntary sector believe - often quite rightly - that they can provide better and more innovative services, and they also - quite naturally - want some relief from the chronic financial uncertainty of sector life.

New Labour, which has enjoyed untrammelled power for too long now, wants to extend its power for even longer by presenting voters at the next election with a controlled and tidy society, run as cheaply as possible.

So there are gains for both sides in the Acevo blueprint: the Government discerns the prospect of better services and the cost savings that can result from escaping the cumbersome practices of the public sector; the voluntary sector sees greater financial security and the chance to spread its wings and fulfil its mission. Both sides can be forgiven for being slightly intoxicated, and it's hard to see how the Government can lose from the deal.

But there are many potential disadvantages for the voluntary sector, and it should take a careful look inside the horse before throwing open the gates and hauling it inside. It could be vulnerable, for example, to the charge of collaborating with what some unions have called "privatisation by another name". There could be further polarisation between the 'statutory voluntary sector' and the rest, as mentioned by Professor Nicholas Deakin in his speech last week, The End of Innocence.

But the most important danger is the loss of independence - will Communities in Control become, in practice, Politicians in Control? Because they are elected, ministers will always claim a greater legitimacy than organisations whose values and practices have more subtle and less doctrinaire origins.

If push comes to shove, the winner is nearly always the one who is providing the cash and writing the contract.

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