Wally Harbert: Don't ask the Vatican to advise on birth control

Community groups will struggle to be heard by the Commission on Ageing and the Voluntary Sector because it is dominated by large charities that view the Big Society with contempt, writes our columnist

Wally Harbert says the commission is unlikely to achieve anything radical
Wally Harbert says the commission is unlikely to achieve anything radical

New Philanthropy Capital and the International Longevity Centre have sponsored the new Commission on Ageing and the Voluntary Sector. At least, I think that is what it is called. One official website refers to it as The Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing.

I wonder why the only organisations to establish commissions are the monarchy and the voluntary sector. Others make do with plain committees or even plebeian working parties. Perhaps it is hoped that pronouncements by a commission will have more gravitas than those of a committee. Personally I think it is a bit pretentious.

In broad terms, the commission will be considering organisations with two contrasting viewpoints on ageing. They both rattle tins, but one identifies retirement as a time to offer protection and care while the other wants to create experiences for older people in which they can enjoy new freedoms such as ballooning, dancing, volunteering or attending further education courses. Charities tend to cater for either the 'young old' or the 'old old'; but there is a big overlap.

I would have liked one commissioner to have been drawn from the leisure industry, where relationships between helper and helped are somewhat different than in the average charity. Most of us prefer to be customers rather than patients or clients.

It would have been useful, too, to include someone with retailing experience. They know a lot about older people, their likes and dislikes and how to respond to them. They also understand how complex organisations work. Roy Griffiths, a notable grocer, made reform of the health service inevitable when he said, 25 years ago, that if Florence Nightingale were carrying her lamp through the NHS she would be searching for the people in charge.

If, today, she shone her lamp on the financial accounts of some organisations she would wonder why they are still called charities. The commission would perform a valuable service by spelling out the key values that distinguish voluntary organisations from other kinds of provision.

Nearly one-third of charity income is derived from government and, despite the big society rhetoric, funding strongly favours large organisations and centralised, top-down projects over small, local developments. The commission will need to tackle this head-on, but its chair reorganised her own organisation to attract government contracts.

The expert panel assembled to guide the commission seems ill suited to the task. The voice of community groups will struggle to be heard against that of managers and professionals representing large organisations that predominate. Some of them have treated the big society with contempt. It is like asking the Vatican to advise on birth control.

The big guns have already captured the high ground. Do not expect anything radical from this commission, but pray for an inspired minority report.

Wally Harbert is a former director of social services and UK director of Help the Aged

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