Opinion: An off-the-shelf solution that doesn't fit

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

Let voices be raised in song at the news that the first national child poverty summit will take place next month. Hallelujah! But how do I banish the sickly sensation that comes from knowing this is actually billed as Capita's National Child Poverty Summit, after this country largest outsourcer?

As a Private Eye subscriber, I read almost every fortnight about Capita, its public sector contracts and its cost to taxpayers who might prefer to have the cash devoted to ending child poverty. But with the Government unlikely to hit its 2010 target of halving child poverty - 700,000 down, a million or two to go - perhaps Capita has the answer.

If so, it has no speaker to reveal this to its self-organised summit - just leading lights from Barnardo's, Shelter, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. They will be ranged alongside what looks like carefully selected cheerleaders for the Government and its quangos, within a positive agenda that claims to offer a "neutral forum ... to analyse the Government's proposals".

You will be pleased to know that the voluntary sector "provides vital support and information to those affected by poverty", and that eradicating poverty needs "buy-in right across the public and voluntary sectors".

Buy-in, yes; campaigning, human rights, wealth redistribution, no. Of course.

Whatever the outcome of the summit - costing up to £545+VAT, though it's a snip for charities at £150+VAT - we know that Capita usually manages to make good profits from doing the state's bidding, unlike plenty of charities.

It certainly has influence with government. Its reported £1bn worth of public contracts helped lift turnover in the last financial year to £1.4bn and pre-tax profits to £153m. That its former boss loaned New Labour £1m is in no way connected, of course.

Capita is an off-the-shelf solution for public sector problems. Let's hope its often low-cost, union-free workforce is kept free from any taint of commitment to public service or charity-style independence. And if those pesky charities don't deliver cheap and cheerful contract performance as the Government demands, Capita is surely ready to be an off-the-shelf solution for voluntary sector problems, too.

As a company boss looking for aid-related contracts once told charities at a seminar on disasters: "If we do poor work, by all means mistrust us; but if we do good work, that's the time to fear us."

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