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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

SCVO Manifesto

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Services has launched their manifesto for the Scottish elections. There is much in this document to support and most would agree that Scotland needs a thriving third sector. A new approach to social partnership in Scotland is also a positive idea. The voluntary sector is an important contributor to the design and in some cases the delivery of public services. They can provide innovative and flexible services, enabling new approaches to be piloted in ways that can be difficult for core services to undertake. They often share the public service ethos that is absent from the market realm.

It is of course important to recognise the diversity of the sector. We should distinguish local community organisations with their role in community planning and national campaigning organisations that promote and represent service interests, from the role of semi-commercial service delivery organisations.

My problem with the manifesto is those sections that have clearly been influenced by the SCVO's big funders, the semi-commercial delivery organisations. The emphasis the SCVO has given to these sections of their manifesto, drown out the rest. Complaints about protecting the 'bloated' public sector, the need to expand the third sector's role in delivering public services etc. This takes the SCVO perilously close to the business lobby agenda. In fact their spokesperson on Sunday's Politics Show talked about opening up services to the voluntary and private sectors. Of course he used to be a lobbyist for the business lobby, but if this is a new strategy to join up these positions, it is dangerously naive.

Due to EU procurement legislation this approach opens services to contestability and in some sectors, notably care, has created an opening for poor quality private sector providers to start a race to the bottom in terms of quality. It may initially award contracts to the voluntary sector (or even small business), but the end result is big private sector care operators with their minimum wage, corner cutting approach that has been highlighted in so many care scandals. Ironically, outsourcing in the voluntary sector has thrown up some difficulties this week with the news that the company running the Salvation Army's clothes recycling made £10m out of the charitable donations.

Much is made in the SCVO manifesto and recent press releases about how wrong it is to protect public sector jobs. This confuses attempts by the Scottish Government to avoid complusory redundancies with job losses. The SCVO jobs watch this week stands at 134 jobs. UNISON's public sector jobs watch stands at over 12,000 with much more to come. So this spin is just absurd. Job losses are bad news to both sectors and the Scottish economy, but if the SCVO have a strategy that attempts to divide public and voluntary sector workers, then they will win few friends anywhere.  

In the wider context of public service reform the voluntary sector does offer the prospect of better community engagement, but of course it is not democratically accountable. Some organisations have poor governance, are captured by managerial elites and are run with poor management of staff. In this context there is a need to be able to find a role for the voluntary sector that captures the best features of the sector without damaging the overall approach to integrated service delivery.

UNISON Scotland has today launched its evidence to the Christie Commission. We argue for a new approach to public service delivery that views the service from the service user perspective. In that vision there is plenty of space for the voluntary sector.

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