Charities to ‘pick up the pieces’?

More than a trace of disillusionment was detectable in the
speech chief executive Stuart Etherington gave at the National
Council for Voluntary Organisations’ annual conference a fortnight

He feared in particular a scenario where charities involved in
public service delivery were being relied upon to “pick up the
pieces” of public sector failure.

“Although we have made substantial gains by focusing so much as a
sector in the past 10 years on our relationship with government, we
have lost focus on the other things we do,” Etherington told

For an organisation that has consistently supported the
government’s drive to increase the sector’s involvement in public
services – although always with the proviso that organisations
should have the freedom to opt out – Etherington’s words hinted at
a weariness with the government’s agenda.

At the same conference a year ago, he dismissed worries over the
sector surrendering its independence to deliver public services as
a “tired old story” that needed to be “put to bed”.

Whitehall would do well to sit up and take notice of the NCVO’s
apparent change of heart if it wants to avoid alienating one of its
few allies in the sector.

Many organisations, including the Social Directory for Change, have
stuck firmly to the belief that voluntary organisations would risk
their cherished independence if they became more involved in public
service delivery.

The NCVO, by contrast, has consistently promoted the message that
those who want to deliver public services should be allowed to do
so, without losing independence, and those who do not should not

If the NCVO’s stance seems to be wavering, it is unsurprising given
the mounting evidence of the government trying to prescribe the
sector’s purpose and direct its activities to complement its own

Heavy criticism has been levelled, for example, at the Big Lottery
Fund – the result of the merger of the Community and New
Opportunities Funds.

Concerns that organisations whose aims did not tie in with
government policies would lose out financially grew after the
operator’s funding streams were announced before the supposed
consultation on them had even ended. The open grants programme that
had existed under the Community Fund, which allowed people to apply
for large sums of money for a wider range of causes, no longer

Even where the government is supposed to be supporting the sector
to deliver public services, there have been unexplained and
unacceptable delays in the releasing of funds.

Etherington has been forced to write to the Home Office asking why
the £80m allocated to implement the ChangeUp programme, to be
spent on areas such as governance and IT, has yet to

The landmark decision last week by the Charity Commission allowing
charities to deliver a whole public service rather than a
supplementary one will make it easier for the voluntary sector to
become involved in the public service delivery agenda.

But, as Campbell Robb, director of public policy at NCVO, points
out: “It should not be seen as giving carte blanche to councils to
transfer responsibility for public services to charities. It will
be important that any such newly created organisations, as with any
charity, can satisfy two critical tests: that their governance
structures and mission are truly independent of the founding
authority and that their purposes are charitable and provide a
genuine public benefit for the community.”

Research carried out by the NCVO last year showed that it was large
organisations that were benefiting from cash coming into the sector
via public services, while medium and small ones had seen their
income fall.

Despite government rhetoric that voluntary groups have a choice
about becoming involved in public services, there are worrying
signs that the number of genuine options available is

In the past four years, policy changes in the voluntary sector have
been formed with public service delivery in mind and the millions
of pounds that have flooded into the sector have been for those
that want to play ball. The question is, where does that leave
those that do not?

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