The drive for greater voluntary sector involvement in employment services took further steps forward last week with the publication of new research and a visit to the UK by Patrick McClure of Mission Australia.
The research, by Oxford Economic Forecasting, proposes redefining the role of Jobcentre Plus and bringing in reforms to make it easier for outside providers to bid for work. Acevo and the Employment Related Services Association, which together commissioned the research, are now calling for a taskforce to liaise with the Department of Work and Pensions on taking the enterprise forward.
The significance of McClure's visit is that Australia has gone much further down this road than the UK, and Mission Australia is already providing a raft of employment-related services and apparently demonstrating improved performance and reductions in costs. Among his appointments was a visit to work and pensions secretary David Blunkett who, like the rest of the Government, is committed to opening public services to a wider range of providers.
This is all heady stuff, and there could be many opportunities here for the voluntary sector, not only to expand the contribution it already makes in helping people back into work, but also to bring some new life and a higher ethic into an area of social service that has gone stale in the public sector. But there will be tricky water to negotiate, and it would be unwise to get carried away. Look, for example, at another part of the Whitehall forest and the furious reaction from probation officers union Napo last week when the Home Secretary's plans for a similar opening up of the probation service were leaked.
One of the most crucial decisions the sector will have to make is how deeply it should get involved in activities that have a bearing on decisions about eligibility for state benefits. The Oxford Economic Forecasting report emphasises that Jobcentre Plus should retain the functions of paying benefits and deciding on eligibility. But will not the activities, decisions and conclusions of those working with the unemployed feed back into those eligibility decisions? And even if they don't, is there not a danger they will be thought to do so? What is ultimately at stake is the public trust that derives from the time-honoured default position of most of the voluntary sector - that its agenda is separate from that of the state and that its main loyalty is with the disadvantaged and marginalised.