Kevin Curley: Government must get behind the social value act

The new law will need forceful implementation and rigorous monitoring if it is to be effective, says our columnist

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

Like most people who want to see local charities prosper, I was thrilled when Chris White's Public Services (Social Value) Bill finally became an act at the end of February.

Chris genuinely understands the importance of local voluntary action. His website tells us that in the past four weeks he has worked with a Citizens Advice Bureau, his local Age UK and three community centres in Warwick and Leamington. When the bill was being debated, he said: "We need to empower and champion civil society. We need to create the opportunity for voluntary organisations, social enterprise and charities to thrive. That will not happen by itself."

Here is a man who gets it. Public policy has to include interventions to protect the local voluntary sector from the worst features of public sector procurement methods.

Quite rightly, sector leaders are busily talking up the importance of the act. Joe Irvin, Navca's new chief executive, said the act would "open the door for many local charities to contribute more to their communities". Peter Holbrook, chief executive of Social Enterprise UK, said he expected this legislation to put the brakes on firms that wanted to cream excessive profits from taxpayers' money. Let's hope, then, that Emma Harrison, A4e's founder, is sleeping uneasily in her mansion after counting the £8m she got last year from her company's contracts with government schemes such as the Work Programme - which has succeeded in excluding many local charities with years of experience in helping people without work to get back into the mainstream.

In the excellent quick guide to the act produced by Social Enterprise UK, social value is defined as "looking beyond the price of each contract at what the collective benefit to a community is when a public body chooses to award a contract". So far, so good. But local commissioners are notoriously difficult to influence. Metaphors about turning tankers around come to mind. Many have ignored the Compact for 12 years, deliberately - and wrongly - used European procurement regulations to advise councillors that local authority grants can no longer be awarded and treated the new Best Value Statutory Guidance with contempt. Why will they take any notice of Chris White's act?

What's needed is a government-led taskforce to implement it. Secondary legislation should spell out how social value should be secured locally and measured. Every local council, primary care trust and clinical commissioning group must be required to publish a social value commissioning policy and implementation plan.

Eighteen months from now, we need a National Audit Office study and a Public Administration Select Committee inquiry to see what difference the act has made. Without robust follow-up, it will be business as usual for local commissioners and the potential for local charities to improve local services will be wasted.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser and former chief executive of Navca

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