Charities put in a bind

This government has made no secret of its desire to involve the
voluntary and private sectors more centrally in the delivery of
public services. According to one estimate, voluntary and private
bodies could be delivering £60bn-worth of public services by
2006-7, representing 80 per cent growth in three years. It is
characteristic of New Labour that change would hardly proceed more
quickly if the Conservatives came to power in two weeks time.

Private companies have often been eager to snap up the services
offered to them by the government, with mixed results for their
shareholders and for consumers. But the voluntary sector is
different. It is not just a question of whether charities are
likely to be more efficient or more innovative than the public
sector. There is also the question of whether the government’s view
of the voluntary sector is the same as the voluntary sector’s own,
whether the services the voluntary sector are asked to provide are
in keeping with the values and principles that underpin it
strategically and operationally. The answer, at least some of the
time, is plainly no.

These concerns are thrown into stark relief by the Labour
manifesto’s commitment to giving the voluntary sector, in
partnership with the private sector, more opportunities to run
offender services, including young offender institutions. In one
respect, this is a sensible proposal: it could result in more
emphasis on rehabilitation in YOIs and would make it easier to
provide continuous support to the offender in custody and
afterwards in the community. But in every other respect it is bad
policy, despite the endorsement it has received from the
Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations. First,
there is inevitable suspicion that the government wants to buy the
voluntary sector on the cheap to help it achieve the Treasury’s
target of £21.5bn in efficiency savings by 2008. And second,
how can voluntary organisations be accountable to their own
trustees while at the same time having to answer to the Home Office
for a raft of prison service performance indicators? Could
charities produce the profound cultural change required in YOIs or
would they succumb to the existing culture instead as many in the
sector fear?

The voluntary sector is much more than merely a means to the
government’s end of delivering more effective public services.
Until this is acknowledged, Labour’s strategists are missing the

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