Opinion: Keep the sector voluntary or lose our bright ideas

Julia Neuberger, a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering

The trade union Amicus is urging the Treasury to bar voluntary and private sector organisations from bidding for public sector contracts (Third Sector, 15 November).

Meanwhile, David Cameron is moving towards a position where the welfare state will be largely provided by the third sector. Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, said that Amicus was living "in cloud-cuckoo-land", and he was right. It is quite out of sympathy with the spirit of the age - more concern is shown about who pays for services than about who provides them. If the public purse still pays for the services, it might be argued that it should not matter at all who provides them. As Bubb argued: "We should focus on what public services are there for - providing a service to communities."

Indeed we should. Ruth Kelly, the communities and local government secretary, last week promised to end the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for 16 and 17-year-olds by 2010. That is a commitment to a particular kind of public service. But the actual provision of supported housing will largely be down to the voluntary sector. Local authority provision has reduced dramatically. The bulk of hostel provision, with some rare and specific exceptions, comes from the voluntary sector. So Amicus is completely off-beam if it thinks that the voluntary sector will not be bidding for the new contracts to provide more support for young homeless people.

But Amicus is right about one thing. Although the role of the voluntary sector, which is close to communities and expert in certain sorts of services, is one we should all praise, there are dangers. First, competing for contracts, becoming regular public service providers and changing the emphasis from campaigning to service provision will, possibly, muzzle the voices of those who are outraged at what public social care provision - whoever actually provides it - can come up with. If you are paid to do something by government - national, regional or local - it has a powerfully negative effect on your desire to upset the paymaster.

The second danger is more subtle: if the voluntary sector becomes increasingly a provider of public services, it changes its nature. Its 'voluntary' nature comes into question. If David Cameron's welfare state is provided entirely by the third sector, where will he find the critiques, the brilliant, often left-field new ideas? Where will innovation come from if the sector is so busy providing services? The danger is that the voluntary sector will be too busy, too worried about income for paying large wage bills, too much like statutory providers to run with bright ideas. If that happens, we will all be the poorer. Innovation will be stifled. The welcome voice and slightly eccentric provision of services by parts of the voluntary sector will disappear. That could be stultifying and ultimately far from beneficial to the people for whom the services were designed in the first place. Not what any politician had in mind, surely.

AND WHILE WE'RE ON THE SUBJECT ...

- Rachael Maskell, national officer at Amicus, has met Stephen Timms, chief secretary at the Treasury, to argue that voluntary sector bids for public service contracts lead to a deterioration in services for users and conditions for staff. She said Amicus members in the voluntary sector had complained about this.

- Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Communities, has pledged to end by 2010 the use of bed and breakfast accommodation for homeless 16 and 17-year-olds. She wants to develop 'supported lodging' schemes, where youngsters without family homes would live as part of other households and receive help, advice and support.

- Some charities that deliver many public services, such as Turning Point and Rainer, have argued that doing so allows them to make their voice heard more easily among decision makers and does not undermine their independence or capacity to campaign.

- Others have argued that if a charity is getting all its funding from statutory sources its independence is compromised. The Directory of Social Change has spoken out against plans to increase public service delivery.

A survey of its newsletter readers showed 68 per cent thought public service delivery should not be counted as charitable.

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