Saturday, 17 October 2009

Standing up to an over weaning state and responding to comments

Shocked to see front page story in today's Guardian which indicates , if the reported stories are true , that the Government's "Prevent" programme, which is aimed at preventing muslims being drawn into extremism is now being used to gather intelligence about things like politics and sexual activity of quite innocent people.

What I find deeply worrying from this story is that third sector community organisations are reported as having their funding linked to providing this type of information to the State. The Guardian reports on a number of youth groups, and even a mental health project. Whilst anyone working in our sector would feel it a duty to report on what they saw as a potential terrorist threat it is a quite unacceptable breech of the independence of our sector to illegitimately use funding to try to extract and pass on information on clients outside this concern, and without their knowledge. It is not simply that this breeches the trust and confidence that we must have working with clients, it could undermine the very work we are trying to do among Muslim communities which helps promote good community relations.

I regard these allegations as so serious I am writing to Third Sector Minister Angela Smith MP to ask her to review these allegations and for an explicit assurance that sector funding will not be dependent on complying with the Prevent Programme. I am asking the Compact Commissioner and Compact Voice to mount an immediate enquiry into whether the evidence in the Guardian article amounts to a breech of the Compact which underlines the independence of the sector from the State. Obviously we must first gather evidence to see whether what is reported in The Guardian on third sector bodies is correct. To this end I will be emailing ACEVO members to see if they have encountered problems or have concerns. I have always believed it important to work with government at local and national level to promote the values and interests of our sector and for our beneficaries . But this relationship must be based on a respect for our independence and an understanding it underpins our role in society and the economy.

Mike Chitty has left an interesting comment on my Blog which I want to respond to. He argues one of the problems of public service delivery is that the State is determining what services should be provided. He said, "a lot of people who could be doing good community development work (facing the community and working for them) end up doing 'good work for the state - delivering public services. This is not community development. At the community engagement strategy workshop in Leeds recently the practitioners forum was full of frustration at delivering public services that did not reflect local needs and priorities. The solution to this is not smarter commissioning by the state. It is establishing a culture where community development workers face the community rather than the funder. " I don't believe this is an argument against the sector doing more service delivery but I do agree that the State can sometimes fail to commission the right things.

Our sector has had a proud tradition of challenging the way the State often delivers services. Mental Health is a good example. Or many services for people with disabilities. There are a wide range of charities set up to support people who have rebelled against the way the state has treated them. And Mike is right that communities of place as well as of interest must be supported to deliver what their communities or beneficiaries want even when a local council or quango or health authority has a different view. But this is perhaps too stark a picture. Our role in delivering services has always been tied to our role in advocacy and campaigning. The recent campaign by Action for children which I highlighted last week is a good example of this. A4C has a strong role in delivering children's services across the country. It does so in a way it believes is good for children , but also works with Government and Councils to ensure effective policy on child care and development.

So the sector should never become mere mechanical arms of the state , passively delivering a service. They learn from, and use, the lessons of delivery to ensure policy change nationally and locally. Helen Edwards, who used to run NACRO, always argues that NACRO's strong programme of delivery of rehabilitation services helped inform and guide their policy development and campaigning. It is also important that we engage strongly with commissioners in debating what services need to be commissioned. Again our record is strong here. The mental health charities have fought long and hard for better community support for people with mental health problems and to ensure services are tailored to beneficiaries . And the Guardian story today perhaps rather underlines Mike's point.

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