Voluntary sector 'enslaved' by public services contracts, says report by NCIA's Andy Benson

The co-convenor of the National Coalition for Independent Action, author of one of two reports on the subject published yesterday, says the big society is 'a sham'

Andy Benson
Andy Benson

The voluntary sector has been "enslaved" by working with government and private companies to deliver public services, and the government’s big society agenda has been a sham, according to the pressure group the National Coalition for Independent Action.

The NCIA published two reports yesterday on the contracting out of public services and how this has affected the voluntary sector.

Outsourcing and the Voluntary Sector, written by Laird Ryan, explores the motivations, progress and impact of the coalition government’s drive to privatise public services, and how this has affected the voluntary sector in England. It cites research published in March 2013 by Outsource magazine that showed public sector contracting in the UK accounted for 80 per cent of all public service outsourcing in Europe, the Middle East and Africa in 2009.

The Devil That Has Come Amongst Us: The Impact of Commissioning and Procurement Practices, by Andy Benson, a co-convenor of the NCIA, examines "the procurement and commissioning regimes through which this progressive enslavement of voluntary groups has been achieved".

The reports say that voluntary groups running public services have their priorities decided by business people or council officials with less knowledge of the issue than the charities themeselves. This means that the charities then work to serve the needs of these groups rather than their beneficiaries.

They also say there is self-censorship by voluntary groups that are fearful of losing contracts. According to the second report, one voluntary group that challenged a council's policy on domestic violence was told: "Do you want funding for next year? Then I suggest you shut up."

This tight competition for funding means charities use up resources competing with each other and are now less likely to collaborate and work together, the reports say.

Benson’s report concludes by saying that charities should step away from working with the private sector. "Disengagement from the private sector will, for most voluntary services groups, be a vital step towards reasserting their independence and their place in the ‘ungoverned space’ of civil society," it says.

At the publication of his report, Benson said: "The big society is a sham. This government's policies have stifled and weakened the voluntary sector."

He said that privatisation and outsourcing had seen "voluntary groups allowed in only as a junior partner to profit-hungry corporations. Markets may be good for selling coffee, but they are not the right way to meet the needs of local communities and vulnerable people." 

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