Charities becoming 'servants of the government', report claims

By staff writers
February 4, 2015

A network of voluntary sector workers has produced a blistering critique of charity leaders who go along with privatisation and fail to speak out against austerity.

The comments are made in Fight or Fright, produced by the National Coaltion for Independent Action (NCIA) after a year-long Inquiry into Voluntary Services. It has been welcomed by voluntary groups including the Refugee Council and Children England.

NCIA accuse major charities and voluntary sector leadership bodies of squandering the unique respect and radical space that charities and voluntary groups have occupied in British society.

The report alleges that they have allowed themselves to become “the willing servants of government and of private corporations as they take over public services”.

NCIA has called on charities and voluntary services to to fight for the rights of the people they serve, protect their own independence and resist the privatisation of public services.

Fight or Fright states that extensive research over the last year has shown how voluntary services have been “re-engineered” to serve and support cuts in services and spending, and assist the outsourcing of what’s left. As public services are replaced by private and voluntary providers, charities – who could be speaking out against developments – have been silenced by the co-option and compromise of bidding for contracts and acceptance of marketplace values.

“Our inquiry has demonstrated, in unprecedented breadth and depth that the voluntary sector is facing its biggest threat for decades and major charity leaders are colluding in practices that could kill it off,” declared Penny Waterhouse, Co-Director of NCIA and co-author of Fight or Fright

She added, “Voluntary services are faced with a choice: to regain their true role in civil society, separate from, but complementary to, the state and private sector; or continue to play the markets and become part of privatised welfare provision delivering profit-driven services of questionable quality.”

While critical of the current government, the report has no praise for Labour. It claims that both Labour and coalition governments have used the voluntary sector to drive through policies that create desperate hardship amongst poor and vulnerable people.

Many voluntary groups, according to Fight or Fright, have been happy to morph into “private sector lookalikes” and struggle to the front of the queue to pick up contracts. “Fear of losing out has kept them in line,” says NCIA.

Some of the harshest criticism is aimed at organisations which seek to represent the voluntary sector, such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO).

According to NCIA, such leadership bodies “have failed to stimulate, let alone organise, any meaningful opposition to slashing of services for poor people and disadvantaged communities, and direct cuts to these people’s living standards. And they have actively promoted partnerships with private corporations with reputations for criminality, dishonesty, poor employment practice and other abuses.”

Certain charity leaders likely to be embarrassed by the report. The pressure on them has been increased by the positive response the report has received from other well-known voluntary groups.

One of the first to welcome the report was Maurice Wren, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council.

Fight or Fright exposes the reality that, whatever the sales pitch says about empowerment, contracting means conscription,” said Wren.

He added, “Instead of advocating, we end up rationing; instead of dissenting and challenging, we end up gatekeeping and defending the status quo. With public faith in the orthodoxies of austerity and privatisation diminishing across Europe, Fight or Fright provides a welcome and timely impetus for us to change the weather in the UK too.”

Kathy Evans, Chief Executive of Children England, said NCIA has sounded an “alarm bell” about the future. She said the report was important “whether you agree with every word or not” and urged the voluntary sector “to speak out without fear, and to fight for what you believe is right”.

Many of the report's concerns are shared in other recent publications – though sometimes in softer language – from the Barings Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector; the final ‘Big Society Audit’ from Civil Exchange; and, initiatives such as the Declaration of Interdependence, produced by Children England and the TUC.

Fight or Fright calls for voluntary service groups to set ethical conditions as part of any contracting, refusing to allow their resources, especially volunteer effort, to generate profit for private firms.

In a warning to leadership bodies such as NCVO and ACEVO, they said that if they do not become accountable and challenge austerity, their members should “vote with their feet and re-build a collective voice elsewhere”.

NCVO and ACEVO have yet to respond to the report.

[Ekk/1]

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