Voluntary action and privatisation

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The article below appeared in the Winter 2005/6 issue (No. 34) of Green Socialist magazine (quarterly journal of the Alliance for Green Socialism). The author retains copyright but it may be reproduced and quoted as long as the author and Green Socialist magazine are given acknowledgement.

The Voluntary Sector and Privatisation

Privatisation may be primarily about extracting a profit from the public services for capitalist parasites but this is not the only form it takes. This article looks at the role of voluntary organisations in the fragmenting of our public services

If you have applied for a place at University, or helped someone else do so, then you will have come across UCAS – the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. As its name implies, this organisation is a public service agency which processes and co-ordinates applications and admissions to state institutions of Higher Education. It is publicly funded and clearly part of the statutory public services – and yet it is not a Civil Service Department, or even an Executive Agency, but a registered charity. In theory it is a purely voluntary organisation set up to carry out non-state functions for the public good.
If you successfully apply for a Home Help, in many parts of the UK the person who arrives to do the laundry, shopping and various specified household tasks may not be an employee of the Council Social Services Department. They may be employed by Age-Concern or a similar body with a contract to provide this service on behalf of the council. Home Bathing Assistants, Meals-on-Wheels, Lunch-Clubs and a whole range of related services have long been subject to a system of contracting which has seen much of the Personal Social Services sector fragmented over the past two decades.
In some areas even the minutiae of local services (such as fixing litter bins to lamp-posts or maintaining and equipping children’s playgrounds) are being provided via a network of funding and contracting arrangements involving money going through voluntary agencies which may be little more than self-appointed committees of (hopefully) well-meaning local residents who actually represent no-one but themselves.
Over the past twenty years a so-called “Contract Culture” has been imposed on the Voluntary Sector (this includes registered charities but also a far larger number of unregistered organisations) under both Tory and New Labour governments. This system has turned some voluntary bodies into little more than sub-contractors to the statutory sector, whose primary purpose is simply to seek contracts from the statutory sector to maintain their cash-flow and their existence. This has, in turn, affected the nature of the voluntary sector and the type of people who run it. It has also had a significant effect on the nature and structure of service provision in precisely those services which are most used by the poorest and most economically and socially marginalised sections of society.
Even those voluntary organisations who are opposed, for reasons of ideology, principle or practicality, to this process, and whose Management Committees (Trustees) try to resist it, find themselves forced by sheer economic necessity to adopt the style and management posture of market oriented businesses. If the only way to maintain a service (for example; advising and assisting victims of race or sex discrimination) is to enter into a competitive tendering process against other voluntary agencies, or even commercial organisations, then this is what they are forced to do, like it or not. Inevitably this process creates pressures to reduce the tender price by abandoning links with union pay-rates in order to reduce wages, cutting pension contributions and conditions of employment and utilising various (and often legally dubious) types of fixed and short-term contracts.
Many new “voluntary” agencies have been created, often instigated by local authorities, for the purpose of taking over or tendering for the running of specific public services. Often these organisations are claimed to be more representative of, and accountable to, service users than the council or health authority departments which preceded them – but this is often a flimsy claim. Many such organisations have relatively few participating members and in some cases they simply compile a mailing-list of people, perhaps using records of service users, who are then claimed as members whom the organisation can speak for, whether or not they have actually agreed to join anything. Some years ago a West Yorkshire Metropolitan Borough Council instigated the setting up of a charitable company to take over its Disabled Persons´ Day Centre. This body subsequently claimed to represent all disabled people within the borough, on the basis that all potential service users were eligible for membership – although none of them had actually joined!
One result of these changes is that many statutory services are actually delivered by relatively small, generally non-unionised, organisations, often employing staff on worse terms and conditions than their directly employed statutory sector counterparts and often with dubious systems of public accountability. Even if those running these organisations are people of honesty and integrity (not always the case) they are frequently forced by circumstances, perhaps including their own inexperience and lack of competence, to act just like private sector cowboys.
Of course, not all voluntary agencies are small. Some are very big businesses indeed – and ´business´ is the appropriate term here because they are forced to adopt commercial models and forms of organisations by the system under which they obtain funds and win contracts. For example, much of the UK social housing sector (previously dominated by council housing directly built and managed by local authorities) has been transferred to Housing Associations. Some of these are multi-million-pound organisations employing thousands of staff and managing thousands of homes. While some Housing Associations are progressive and competently managed, others have adopted the worst practices of the private sector (both as landlords and employers). In seeking to organise housing workers into trade unions, I have come across Housing Association managers whose practices were simply corrupt.
Housing aside, if other public services are being transferred or contracted out in dribs and drabs to voluntary organisations, why is this a bad thing? After all, councils hardly have an unblemished record of success, progressive thinking or enlightened management in their oversight of the social services. If Home Helps, Lunch Clubs and Day Centres for the elderly and disabled (for example) are provided by voluntary bodies might not this make them more accountable to local communities who have little control over the faceless bureaucrats in the Town Hall? If local associations of people with interests or circumstances in common are willing to take over a public service then why shouldn’t they be allowed to?
In fact there are a great many reasons why this process should be regarded with caution and some suspicion. For example, in several metropolitan boroughs it has resulted in the effective racial segregation of some services. There are also the well-documented effects on workers´ wages and conditions (the reasons why the major trade unions are unable and unwilling to effectively organise this sector could easily fill an entire article – and may do so in the future). The nature of the interest groups who dominate much of the voluntary sector are also not straightforward.
While all voluntary organisations are technically ¨non-profit¨ organisations supposedly governed by trustees with no personal financial interests, this is often not as simple as it sounds. A great many trustees are in fact professional managers (often from other voluntary agencies) with career and group interests to promote. During five years on the Board of Directors of the Federation of Independent Advice Centres (FIAC – now known as AdviceUK), which represents the voluntary advice sector in negotiations with government and other national bodies, I was frequently the only director at board meetings who was actually an unpaid volunteer from a local advice centre rather than a professional advice centre manager. My fellow directors were caring, competent, sincere and principled people who generally governed the organisation well – but precisely whose interests they represented is a debatable point.
However, the principle reason for resisting this process, or at least seeking to radically modify it, is that the fragmentation of services, the growth of competing special interest groups and the imposition of a market-oriented culture of managerialism in the provision of basic social and public services is incompatible with the kind of integrated and accountable public sector which socialists strive for.
If we want progressive, accountable and co-ordinated public services serving an integrated society (in personal social services as in transport) then a large element of direct provision by elected local authorities and other state agencies is both desirable and necessary. Independent voluntary organisations certainly have a role and should be encouraged – but not under a system which effectively turns them into mere fragmented, competing sub-contractors and unaccountable agents of the state.
© Steve Radford (January 2006)
Email: editor@greensocialist.org.uk
Steve Radford is a former member of the National Committee/Board of Directors of the Federation of Independent Advice Centres (AdviceUK) and the former Secretary of the TGWU Yorkshire Voluntary Sector Staffs Branch.

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