Charity body warns over transfer of services

Charity body warns over transfer of services


David Brindle

The Guardian




Charities should think twice before plunging into contracts to deliver public services, the umbrella body for the voluntary sector will caution tomorrow, in a move to curb government expectations of large-scale transfers of services from state providers.


Delivery of public services should be ‘a means to an end for voluntary and community organisations… not the end in itself,’ the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) will say. ‘We need to ensure a balance between this and our wider role in supporting and promoting civil society.’


The intervention by the NCVO will be seen as highly significant, coming after key Labour figures have been talking up the potential of charities – and cooperative and mutual organisations – to take on a far greater share of health, social care, education and leisure services.


The Labour manifesto at the recent general election declared: ‘In a range of services, the voluntary and community sector has shown itself to be innovative, efficient and creative. Its potential for service delivery should be considered on equal terms.’


However, this enthusiasm for charity-run services has been met with growing alarm in many parts of the voluntary sector. For the first time, the sector now gets more income from the government than from public donations. Some charities, including several of the biggest, depend on national and local government contracts and grants.


Although the NCVO insists it is doing little more than restating the terms on which it engaged with the public services debate four years ago, it is stepping in amid indica tions that ministers are studying ambitious ideas, such as parcelling out to charities the Jobcentre Plus training service.


Campbell Robb, the NCVO’s director of public policy, admitted last night that charities were reflecting on what their proper role should be in the 21st century. ‘This chimes very much with – I wouldn’t call it a crisis of identity – but with a sense that the sector needs to define itself,’ he said.


Government policy-makers see charities as the acceptable face of outsourcing, seeking not to make a profit from a public service, as well as being close and responsive to its users. But the NCVO has become increasingly alarmed that this is the only way in which its members are being perceived.


In a report tomorrow, the organisation will say that many charities regard their roles of advocacy, through lobbying and campaigning, and of providing advice and information to users of a service, as of far more importance than the opportunity to deliver that service.


Charities may have no interest whatsoever in delivery, but have an equally important part to play in reform of public services. Yet the government focus has been almost entirely on the former and there has ‘all too often’ been a failure to appreciate the breadth of the voluntary sector’s potential.


Although relationships with government remain ‘the most favourable the sector has experienced’, the report will say, member charities should not sign up to contracts before they have asked themselves whether their delivery of a service would benefit the user; whether in doing so they would be adding value to the service in a way that a state or commercial provider could not; and whether involvement would further the charity’s own ‘organisational mission’.


Mr Robb said: ‘There is no doubt that the public services agenda has both opportunities and threats. We are not throwing a red line around these things, just saying you have got to be very, very careful.’


Charities now earn more than £10bn a year from selling goods and services. One which has developed close ties with the government is the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, which raises £28m of its £42m annual income through services and has just completed a contract under which it led modernisation of NHS hearing aid provision.


Brian Lamb, the charity’s communications director, said: ‘We went in and helped modernise the service, not take it over in perpetuity, and we were running a major public campaign at the same time.


‘If the government really is beginning to look at [charities] running entire services, and if we are seen as closer to the user, then we may have to take a closer look. But that hasn’t happened to date and we certainly wouldn’t go into any service delivery if that meant we were going to be muzzled in any way.’