Friday 14 March 2014

Furniture Reuse and Tony Benn.

In Nottingham yesterday (Eastwood to be precise; the birthplace of DH Lawrence) for the 25th anniversary conference of the Furniture Reuse Network. A brilliant organisation that takes beds, sofas and various white goods that people are discarding and puts them back into reuse by those unable to afford these things. It’s like the food banks, but instead of supplying things to eat, it supplies the means of cooking it.

My old Brixton friend Matthew Thomson used to be the CEO. Now he runs the great ’Fifteen' social enterprise and restaurant, down in Cornwall. Craig Anderson is the CEO now taking the organisation forward. An active ACEVO member, he argues for professionalism in our approach to fulfilling our mission, and is charting a strong course for the network.

Furniture re-use is big business now; not surprisingly the recession has seen a big rise in demand, making the Network ever more relevant. I'd been asked to give the opening keynote address alongside Eric Pickles MP. Eric was good - I've known him for decades, since his time as Leader of Bradford. I was able to pay tribute to him for pioneering the Localism Act. I chided the sector for not making extensive use of the Rights clauses of the Act: the right to challenge, to acquire assets, etc. And we still have not fully used the Social Value Act to challenge commissioners.

I spoke on the theme of optimism. Though there are many reasons to be depressed, there are also major opportunities for our sector to deliver better services and to use our voice to challenge and advocate for our beneficiaries. I talked of our proud history of "voice and choice". And I'm afraid I had to chide Eric for the Lobbying Act, which has hardly anything to do with lobbying, and a lot to do with gagging campaigning charities. I said although ACEVO and our friends had secured much change - perhaps we got as much as 70% of what we want - a third sector leader should never be satisfied unless they have got 100%.

I talked about sorting commissioning. Council officials and civil servants have not been terribly good at drafting contracts, and the private sector has got away with serious failing. A handful of big firms mop up most of the cash, as I said in my recent letter to the PM.

The Government needs to "get its house in order”, to ensure the contracting-out of public services to private providers is subject to proper scrutiny and provides value for taxpayers, MPs have warned. Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge said recent outsourcing failures involving firms such as G4S and Serco had exposed "serious weaknesses" in the Government's management of private contracts. Her committee recommended extending FoI legislation to cover the contracts.

Of course this would also mean we were covered too. I'm not sure extending the legislation is a good idea. It would be time-consuming and bureaucratic. But we will need to be more open on contract matters I suspect.

Richard Johnson, former MD of Serco and an adviser to ACEVO, told Today: “if your strongest motivation is to secure the cheapest possible price, you are ultimately going to be driven to the largest contractors".

Last but not least, it was very sad to wake to the new of the death of Tony Benn. When I moved to London in 1976 I lived in Notting Hill for a number of years, and got to know the Benns well. Tony's wife Caroline was the Chair of Holland Park Governors, where I was also a governor for a while. So I used to go round to their place; their eldest son Stephen is an exact contemporary of mine. And I kept in touch.

I used to debate with Tony about public service reform, though I’m afraid he had the view that public services were the role of the State and charities were at the margins. I even asked him to debate the issue at one of our ACEVO CEO Summits. He was brilliant and had the audience in the palm of his hand. I've heard him speak on many occasions. It was always a privilege. And his courtesy in debate would always win him admirers. His writing was a joy. He will be missed.

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