Opinion: Hot Issue - Is service delivery by charities privatisation by another name?

A former special adviser to the Government told a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference that using the voluntary sector to deliver public services could be seen as a form of privatisation.

NO - Joyce Moseley, chief executive, Rainer

To be honest, I think the question is outdated - voluntary organisations have been providing public services for many years. While some have done so to great effect, no one sector has a monopoly on good practice. What must sit at the heart of this debate is whether the service provided meets the needs of its users.

The boundaries that divide public, private and voluntary sectors have become more blurred over the years. And while sensitive issues remain, I think this brings dynamism to public service delivery. The young people Rainer works with often feel under-supported by their public services.

Working with us gives them a fresh start.

Voluntary organisations should bring added value through such things as flexible and innovative ways of working, different funding streams and the extensive use of volunteers.

Part of this debate may stem from a suspicion by public sector colleagues that the voluntary sector is not accountable to anyone. Admittedly, this has a ring of truth. While we must avoid the burden of public sector bureaucracy, we must be more transparent if we are spending public money.

YES - Martin McIvor, director of think-tank Catalyst

Charities certainly have a great deal to contribute to public service delivery. Voluntary organisations can bring fresh ideas and a distinctive ethos that arises from their independence from the state and special relationship to the communities they serve. Public services must find ways to be open to these independent sources of creativity and social action if they are to renew themselves in response to changing social needs.

But there is no getting away from the fact that, as self-standing entities responsible for their own bottom line and dependent upon private provision of finance, charities share some features with profit-making firms that may affect their role in public service delivery. And this may indeed be part of their attraction to a government seeking to control costs and keep investment 'off balance sheet'.

The danger is that, whatever their mission or governance structure, there may be competitive and financial pressures on charities to act in a more commercial manner - maximising surpluses at the expense of service users and the workforce by charging, seeking to 'select out' the more burdensome clients, or with staff terms and conditions that don't compare well with the public sector.

YES - Barry Knight, director, Centris

New Labour has continued the Conservative policy of contracting out public services. Charities are private organisations that pursue public benefit.

Increasingly, the only characteristic that distinguishes charities from businesses that deliver public services is the bar on the distribution of profits. Research by Centris suggests that charities are more and more preoccupied by market share, pay rates, and self-promotion.

In taking over public services, charities are breaching a code that was sacrosanct until the 1980s. It used to be axiomatic that no charity should seek to replace a service that was the responsibility of the state. As the founder of the National Health Service, Nye Bevan, once said: "The flag day is no way to run a hospital." But we seem to be heading that way again.

It could all end in tears. In 1988, the Government wreaked havoc in the charitable sector by terminating a job-training scheme called the Community Programme abruptly. What's to stop it happening again? The current government may appear sympathetic to voluntary action, but subsequent governments may not be. Charities are always desperate for cash, but is the loss of control over one's destiny a price worth paying?

NO - Lord Victor Adebowale, chief executive, Turning Point

Let's be clear about this. It's not about privatisation. And it's not about delivering public services on the cheap. It's about the millions of people in this country who are not getting the support services they need.

The private sector isn't interested in them because there is no profit to be made, and the public sector isn't coping because of the complexity of their need. In fact, in some parts of the country on some of the worst estates you would be hard pushed to find any evidence that we have a welfare state. I believe that the not-for-profit sector has a crucial role to play in changing that. Many voluntary sector agencies provide services that are as professional and as innovative as anything to be found in the private sector. The crucial difference is profit - I don't have shareholders to pay dividends to, and I'm only interested in the benefits we can bring to those we work with.

I'm convinced that by the time I'm 70, if I need social care it will be delivered by the not-for-profit sector. The question is whether we want that change to happen in a planned and managed way. The not-for-profit sector needs to be treated as an equal partner in providing health and social care for people at the point of need.

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