Editorial: Public agencies must cut the red tape in contracts

Stephen Cook

The Health Secretary, John Reid, declared last week that he wants the voluntary sector to play a greater part in the delivery of NHS services.

In many ways that's good news because charities have already demonstrated they can often do things better than the state. They can be more user-focused and offer better value for money.

But the news came at the same time as research from the chief executives' body Acevo that shows that public agencies are getting no better at using reasonable and sensible contracts with the voluntary sector. Out of 300 it investigated, only three were described as following best practice.

In one case, there was a 200-page contract for £2,000-worth of services.

Clearly, the Government can't have it both ways. It's wrong in principle to burden people with pettifogging bureaucracy and inequitable financial arrangements and, sooner or later, even the most compliant voluntary groups will turn round and say, 'no thanks, we'd rather do without the contract if it involves this kind of nonsense'.

If only the solution were simple and just involved ministers saying it shouldn't happen. But they've said so already. Fiona Mactaggart has even put her weight behind issuing more three-year settlements, and the Compact has recently been improved in the hope of producing better contracts.

Political will is not the main problem here.

Instead it seems to be the much more intractable problem of joined-up government. The writ of a minister in charge of a policy does not necessarily run in other departments, in local authorities and among civil servants pre-programmed to keep the purse strings as tight as possible. This is what needs to be addressed.

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