Opinion: New Labour brings back the workhouse

Nick Cater, a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

Amid all the debate about how charities can add value by taking on public service contracts, it's lucky that New Labour knows all the answers.

As we reach the Brighton-Labour stop on the annual spinfest trek, a leak from the Department for Work and Pensions reveals that it has discussed transferring tens of thousands more civil service posts in benefit and employment offices to companies and charities.

The idea is that charities should use their skills and experience to reach out to marginal groups and get more people off benefits and into work. But because the minister in charge is David Blunkett, the bully-boy politician whose past management of asylum created plenty of (unpaid) work for those trying to combat bigotry and racism or support asylum seekers who have been forced to beg, this is not good news for charities.

Instead of making the needs of the sick, isolated and mentally ill their top priority, charities will have to abandon independence and integrity, and instead use their close contacts with vulnerable communities to drive, as an example, disabled people off long-term sickness benefits. By ticking the boxes on government lists of tasks and targets, their rewards will be star ratings and league tables. Those most persuasive in putting the Government's needs above those of the really needy will be rewarded with yet more contracts.

So where is the added value? Try this: reduced costs through cut-price jobs with poor protection and little or no pension; a less unionised workforce unable to maintain high standards when their charities betray their loyalty; campaigners stilled as charities come cap in hand for contracts; and cowed claimants with no one to defend them against the state.

For New Labour, that's an attractive package, completed by the opportunity to eliminate millions more from the benefits system, whether they find work or not, and to absolve itself of responsibility by shifting any blame for poor service onto poorly funded charities undermined by their democratic deficits and limited independent accountability.

If some charities successfully get a lot of people out of the benefits system, others in the voluntary sector can help the growing number who are left without income by providing food, shelter and useful tasks. Under New Labour, such a positive solution deserves a new name: why not "the workhouse"? How could anyone ask for more?

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