Friday, 6 March 2015

Voluntary services face bleak future as ‘servants of the Government’

The involvement of global corporations in the privatisation of public services is firmly on the nation’s agenda. But less well known is the way in which charities and voluntary groups have been seduced or cajoled by New Labour and Coalition governments into helping the outsourcing along. And, in the process, zipping their lips to silence protest about cuts to services and the living standards of the poorest people. This week we launched our final report (Fight or Flight: Voluntary Services in 2015) from a wide ranging Inquiry into the Future of Voluntary Services; it makes sobering reading.

Changes in funding – from grants to contracts and the creation of competitive markets in welfare spending – explains how government has been able to ‘rein in’ independent voluntary groups and recast them as delivery vans for their own policies and programmes. In the resultant shake-out many established local voluntary groups have gone to the wall. Those that survive are pushed into morphing themselves into private sector lookalikes, or into accepting sub-contractor relationships with the ‘prime’ government contractors like G4S, Serco, and Capita. Many large national charities have entered these service markets with enthusiasm, competing with each other and the private sector to pick up contracts.

Meanwhile the idea of making profit out of the needs of vulnerable people and communities has become respectable through peddling the dubious and ill defined concept of ‘social enterprise’, now shifting to the even looser formulation of ‘profit with purpose’. Whilst ‘social investment’ – private money invested in charities and social enterprises to create debt, with interest or dividend payback – is held out as the future source of working capital for the new, stripped out welfare system.

Unsurprisingly, these developments have created a ‘race to the bottom’ for those who work or volunteer in the sector. Paid staff are increasingly on the receiving end of cuts to pay and conditions, increasing use of zero hours contracts, the exploitation of weakened employment rights and heavy-handed management. While volunteers are now increasingly seen as ‘unpaid labour’, to the detriment of personal development and acts of solidarity between ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’.

Sadly sector leadership bodies at both national and local levels have gone along with these changes, signally failing to oppose the cuts, nor defending voluntary groups from the constraints placed on them by the ‘new normal’. Indeed, many national bodies have explicitly or implicitly supported the outsourcing of public services.

A crucial and damming effect of these changes has been the alarming extent to which the critical voice of the voluntary sector has been silenced. Open dissent, even mild informed criticism, is now widely seen by local and national State agencies are unacceptable. The result a massive loss of the ability, on the part of voluntary services, to think, act and speak independently, and especially to speak plainly and passionately where injustice and privation are being visited on their users and beneficiaries.

The fortunes of voluntary services now hang on the coat tails of privatisation, the shrinking of collective responsibility for social protection and the future for public services. The future is looking bleak. Nation Coalition for Independent Action challenges voluntary groups to take urgent action to fight for the rights of the people they serve, protect their independence and resist the privatisation of public services. Failure to do this will squander the unique respect and radical space that charities and voluntary groups have historically occupied in British society.

Written by Andy Benson and first published at Touchstone

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