Beware the hand of government

Social care writer Terry Philpot warns that
the voluntary sector should guard against losing its

Nothing concentrates the mind like a spending
review, as the voluntary sector is about to learn. But this is not
about some reordering of the community fund or even about how local
authority spending impacts on the sector. No, the sector’s
collective consciousness is being brought sharply into focus by the
government’s decision to look at voluntary organisations’
contribution as part of the 2002 spending review.

The fact that the government wants to look at
the sector in the context of public service delivery may be an
encouraging indication that it is being treated more seriously than
is customary for politicians. But it also suggests that the
government may want to see the sector even more fully integrated
into service provision than was implied in the NHS and Community
Care Act 1990, which ushered in the mixed economy of care and the
contract culture.

Is this a good thing? One might have believed
that Labour meant more than Conservative business as usual when
Best Value emphasised public and voluntary partnerships. Then in
November 1998 came the Compact, which aims to build the partnership
between government and the voluntary sector, and, last January,
chancellor Gordon Brown spoke of “the biggest transformation in the
relationship between the state and voluntary action for a century”.
Tony Blair’s warm words about faith communities in recent months
only serve to underline the point.

Thus, the spending review’s wish to look at
the sector’s contribution is about how geared up the sector is to
deliver the government’s agenda on public services. And there’s the
rub – is that what the voluntary sector is here for? Alas, we are
not really sure why it is here beyond the usual bromides that it
and others issue about adding value, offering a qualitatively
different contribution and so on.

And so, while responding to the government’s
wish to draw the broader picture as part of the review by March
2002, the sector needs to think about what those vague
congratulatory and self-congratulatory statements really do and can
mean in a modern welfare state. How much does it wants to be
painted with the brush of “public service” as opposed to the
colours of its own distinctiveness? How can it protect its
independence? Does a seat by the No 10 fireside imperil its
advocacy role? This is not so much a matter of biting the hand that
feeds you, as being aware that the hand that feeds you might also
be that which suffocates you.

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