Together with our friends at the National Coalition for Independent Action [NCIA] we have pressed consistently our concern that the voluntary sector’s independence has been eroded severely by the neo-liberal policies embraced by both New Labour and the Coalition. Indeed in the latest NCIA newsletter Colin Ball, writing about the Australian situation, is quoted as saying that we need to distinguish “between genuinely independent organisations and those that have become agents for the delivery of government welfare services”. On his own blog he sums up part of his argument as follows:
“Yes, it is time to put the so-called ‘third sector’ first, argues Colin Ball in his new book, It’s the community, stupid! In his critical analysis and radical proposals, he argues that the ways in which governments treat and have treated the third sector (or voluntary, not-for-profit, non-governmental sector as some call it) do more harm than good, analysing and describing them as ‘benign neglect’, ‘big bear hug’ and ‘grievous bodily harm’. He also argues that some parts of the sector have lost their identity, getting too close to government (via so-called ‘Compacts’ and ‘welfare partnerships’ ) and too keen to embrace the practices and values of the corporate, for-profit sector. As a result, political mumbo-jumbo (such as ‘Big Society’ and ‘The Third Way’) and such corporate practices as ‘autocratic philanthropy’ go unchallenged, and grass-roots community-led innovation, participation and enterprise become discouraged and even stymied.”
At last it seems the penny is dropping here with the publication of the first of five assessments from the Panel of the Independence of the Voluntary Sector. Its chair, Dame Anne Owers, declares that
“Looking ahead, our report calls urgently for greater commitment to protecting independence. This involves central and local government and the private sector recognising and respecting the distinctiveness and independence of voluntary organisations in funding, commissioning and other joint-working arrangements, and understanding the diverse needs and value of different parts of the sector, including those of smaller voluntary organisations. But preserving independence and core purpose is also a task for the sector itself, and something that needs to be at the forefront of trustees’ minds.”
As if to underline the point, a breaking story on the Third Sector web site reveals “that charities and other groups delivering the Work Programme have signed up to a contract that says they will “not do anything which may attract adverse publicity” for the Department for Work and Pensions. ”
“The provisions came to light after an employee at a charity delivering the Work Programme, who had been in contact with Third Sector, said she could not speak about the programme because she had learned of the restrictions in the contract.”
Is anyone listening to these cautionary words within the ranks of the leading voluntary youth organisations, who have so enthusiastically embraced being involved in the commissioning and privatisation of services for young people? Or do they see themselves as being immune to these dilemmas and contradictions?