'Serious threat' to independence of advice and advocacy charities, says report

Baring Foundation criticises government commissioning of services

The independence of advice and advocacy charities is under serious threat from the Government, according to a report published last week by the Baring Foundation.

The foundation, which awarded grants worth £1.2m in 2008 to seven initiatives established to increase the sector's independence, says in the report Rights with Meaning that increased commissioning and the personalisation of public services are among the main dangers.

Commissioning, it says, poses a "formidable threat to independence" because it increases the state's control over service providers, silences dissent and reduces the ability of charities to set their own priorities.

"Organisations are increasingly pressured into adapting to meet the requirements of commissioners, not the needs of the people who use their services," it says.

Plans to personalise public services by giving people individual budgets to spend on care also attracts criticism in the report. It says people might have to spend part of their budgets on advice that was previously free.

Report author Matthew Smerdon, deputy director of the foundation, told Third Sector the conclusions were based on data received from grant applicants and his own research.

"It's absolutely clear from the evidence we are seeing that the way in which commissioning is currently organised is putting independence under enormous pressure," he said. "There is significant potential for the distinctive nature of the sector to be undermined."

The Legal Services Commission's introduction of fixed fees for charities delivering legal aid poses severe problems for advice centres, according to the report. It says the 70 per cent fall in unrestricted reserves held by members of the Law Centres Federation has been caused by the charities trying to maintain quality services, despite the new pricing structure, which often results in less income.

Belinda Pratten, head of public policy at the NCVO, said: "These findings are of concern, not just because this approach to commissioning threatens the independence of the sector, but because it makes it harder for voluntary organisations to respond to people's needs."

Ralph Michell, head of policy at chief executives body Acevo, which supports an increase in public service delivery by charities and the personalisation approach, said: "It's not commissioning that's the problem - it's bad commissioning. Intelligent commissioning ought to recognise the value of organisations in receipt of public funding being free to criticise."

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