Minister urges debate on sector's role in services

Some public services will always remain beyond the reach of the voluntary sector, Government ministers said last week, despite making a plethora of announcements to enhance the sector's role in public service delivery.

"There are certain services that I believe probably should always remain directly provided by the state," Ivan Lewis, care services minister, told the Three Sector Summit in London.

Both Lewis and the Prime Minister, who was also present, refused to be drawn on what percentage of public services could pass into voluntary and private sector hands. Lewis said more discussion was needed on the issue. "There ought to be a debate about what these services should be," he said.

Some of the main announcements at the summit affect the sector's relationship with local authorities. Local government minister Phil Woolas will chair an "engagement board", involving the voluntary sector and central and local government, to examine issues such as procurement at a national level.

Woolas later told Third Sector he wanted the board to involve small, local voluntary and community groups, because this was the level at which problems arose.

"Local government tends to see the awkward side of the third sector - as the little ones who come and go," he said. "We have to get a spectrum of small community-based ones that can feed in the reality of life at the coalface."

Woolas said the board, which will also look at delivery from the perspective of large national charities, would work across sectors.

He said: "Although there are lots of forums where the voluntary and community sector meets with government, there's nobody who looks at it in the round. It's all sector-specific."

At the summit, Lewis identified commissioning of service provision as one of the biggest barriers to increasing the number of care contracts delivered by voluntary groups.

He said those in local authorities who commission service provision from the private and voluntary sectors often lack the necessary skills and, as result, tend to order from the "same menu".

He said: "Commissioners are frequently reaching for the same tired old solutions."

The Prime Minister also announced a review of the provision of community equipment, such as wheelchairs. The RNIB, RNID and the British Red Cross are pressing for their joint proposal to be adopted.

- See Editorial, page 22

SUMMIT SUMMARY

- A Public Service Innovation Team will look at how to spread best practice

- The DoH has set up a Social Enterprise Unit that will pave the way for new services in health and social care

- A £3m DfES programme will increase local groups' involvement in children's trusts

- A central-local government-third sector engagement board will examine the relationship between the sector and local authorities at a national level

- A series of discussion papers on how the sector can be involved in areas such as waste management will be published.

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