End of a golden era?

Like a struggling actor who thinks they have secured a main part
only to be relegated to a supporting role, the voluntary sector
fears the curtain may be about to fall on its leading performance
in children’s services.

Years of existing on what were often shoestring budgets looked set
to end for voluntary organisations following publication of the
government’s Treasury review in 2002, which outlined plans for
helping the sector deliver public services.

Money flowed into the sector along with responsibility for key
programmes such as Sure Start, and the government heralded
voluntary organisations as crucial to change.

But what was a golden era is now starting to lose its shine.

With funding changes, including the “mainstreaming” of Sure Start
money from April 2006 and the transfer of Children’s Fund cash to
children’s trusts, some fear money once used to fund preventive
services will be used instead to prop up resource-starved statutory
services such as child protection.

Predictions that voluntary organisations will be left out in the
cold may seem unduly pessimistic, but some councils have a less
than distinguished track-record when it comes to involving the

And, with the quality of relationships with voluntary organisations
often hinging on the willingness of one or two key people within a
local authority, there are fresh concerns about the new breed of
children’s services directors who will have the power to make or
break a partnership.

Sue Hayes, director of Barnardo’s North West region, explains that
many of those children’s directors coming from an education
background do not have a working knowledge of the voluntary sector.
She says the charity is spending a lot of its time developing a new
set of relationships.

Although relationships between the sectors should be covered by the
mutually agreed codes between the voluntary sector and councils
known as local compacts, many are failing to offer voluntary
organisations the protection they should.

“It is a myth the compact is adhered to by local authorities,” says
FSU chief executive Philippa Gitlin. Indeed, a recent National
Audit Office report on government funding of the third sector
highlighted problems with the compact and concluded that
“substantial improvements” were needed.

It is therefore unsurprising that there is some anxiety among
voluntary organisations about the impact of the move to children’s

Gitlin says councils are grappling with the changes. Consequently,
planning and commissioning of services have been “thrown into the
air” and many local authorities are choosing to offer one-year
contracts, rendering voluntary organisations insecure and unable to
develop new projects.

Director of policy and information at the National Council of
Voluntary Child Care Organisations Ian Vallender says the umbrella
group is also hearing of councils who are choosing to develop
services themselves rather than use the sector.

Gitlin agrees: “We are beginning to sense that local authorities
are starting to ringfence money they use for community and
voluntary sector work for their own budgets. Increasingly councils
are beginning to say they can deliver services in-house.”

She adds that there is a lot of anxiety about the future of
preventive services because their impact is difficult to measure,
at least in the short-term. “Because of the way local authorities
are judged by central government, with their success or failure
depending on the number of children on the child protection
register, their incentive is to raise the threshold much higher
rather than spend money on preventive work.”

Gitlin believes it will be tough for the government to help the
sector continue its involvement in the agenda once it has given
control of the purse strings to councils.

Ringfencing the cash may ensure it is used for preventive work but,
as Gitlin points out, there would still be no guarantee that
councils would give it to voluntary organisations to deliver

Unlike major national charities such as the NSPCC, the FSU does not
enjoy the financial security provided by private donations.
Nevertheless, its future is less bleak than that of the rash of
small organisations totally reliant on Sure Start and Children’s
Fund money. But, more important still than the financial
consequences for individual organisations, is the impact on
children of the removal of local projects.

DfES advice to councils on engaging the voluntary organisations in
children’s trusts reminds councils that the duty under the Children
Act 2004 to co-operate with partners to improve well-being extends
to the voluntary sector. And statutory guidance on interagency
cooperation expected soon will “make it clear that the voluntary
and community organisations should be involved at every level of
children’s trusts”.

Theses are fine words. But how they will be turned from rhetoric to
reality remains to be seen.

There is a sense within the sector that it is being forced to
relinquish the control it has enjoyed so fleetingly before its
labour has had time to bear fruit. “It is not acknowledged that
real change takes a long time and we are never given quite long
enough,” says Gitlin.

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