The National Coalition for Independent Action has criticised major voluntary sector umbrella bodies for failing to stand up to cuts that affect voluntary groups and the people they serve.
A report published today by the NCIA, a group of individuals and organisations that promote the principles of independent voluntary action, is the final in a series of 17 reports that examine the major issues affecting voluntary action in the UK.
Fight or Flight: Voluntary Services in 2015, says that major voluntary sector umbrella bodies, in particular the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the chief executives body Acevo, have responded to pressures from the state and the private sector in "complicit and supine ways".
"The inquiry found that so-called national leadership bodies, especially but not exclusively the NCVO and Acevo, have failed to stimulate, let alone organise, any opposition to the discriminatory and disproportionate slashing of services for poor people and disadvantaged communities, and direct cuts to these people’s living standards, especially through the benefits system," the report says.
"Patchy responses aimed at specific issues and impacts have been almost universally concerned with cuts to voluntary sector groups, rather than the draconian effects on their users and beneficiaries.
"Ironically, the only area in which the national infrastructure bodies have taken a strong public line is the lobbying act – in defence of a freedom they have scarcely used."
The report says that the NCIA has been warning since 2006 of "the incremental erosion of the principles and practice of independent voluntary action and the emasculation of its role in civil society".
It says: "Our current inquiry has confirmed how these warnings were justified. The picture our research paints is deeply troubling and there is evidence that many people involved with voluntary sector groups are profoundly unhappy with what has happened to the domain that they occupy, but feel confused or powerless about how to regain the initiative."
The report says that the environment for most voluntary services, in particular local groups, is "difficult, hostile and getting worse for the people they exist to serve".
It says there is a growing gap between large and smaller charities because the larger ones are better placed to compete for increasingly big government contracts but are also more successful in attracting private donations and income from commercial sources.
"Many larger charities, including large housing associations, have moved into service provision in local areas in direct competition with often long-established small or medium-sized voluntary groups," it says. "On the part of some of these national charities there is evidence of aggressive competitive and predatory behaviour. Though this is not new, inquiry evidence indicates that it is now a more common characteristic of large charities."
The report says that small and medium-sized groups have suffered the most from reduced resources and increased pressure on local services.
These organisations, the report says, face increasing competition from three kinds of rival organisations: "Private sector companies that have identified new opportunities for profit; new entrepreneurs badged as non-profit but keenly competitive in their approach to contracting and driven by business values; and some of the larger charities."
A spokesman for the NCVO said: "NCIA’s stated aim is to promote a ‘radical political view’ of voluntary action. Our aim is to support and represent voluntary organisations so they can make the biggest difference to the causes they work for."