Public Administration Select Committee: Press Notice

9 July 2008


Link to Report

• No compelling evidence to support Government claim that sector provides public services in distinctive ways

• Report also notes gap between rhetoric of “transformation of services” and reality that sector’s involvement still on small scale

• Committee suggests “intelligent commissioning” the key to discovering if sector has something truly distinctive to offer

The Government’s policy of encouraging voluntary sector organisations to deliver public services is not based on strong evidence and may not improve service standards, the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) says today. The Committee says “there may well be potential in some areas”, but “the onus is on the Government to demonstrate the evidence base supporting its actions”. In particular, the Committee says that it would not support a “mass transfer of services”.

The Committee’s report concludes an 18-month inquiry into the role of the third sector in providing public services. The third sector - made up of organisations such as charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises  - is increasingly being seen by the Government as a partner in public service provision, in areas as diverse as employment training, probation services and social care. The Government argues that the third sector has distinctive qualities which can “transform” public services, but today’s report suggests that “the evidence is simply not there” to judge whether there is anything inherently distinctive about the sector. 

The MPs also argue that a “culture change” is needed across government if hoped-for benefits are to be realised. Advocates of a greater role for the sector in service delivery often call for a “level playing field” between different sectors, but the Committee says it is “unrealistic” to expect most charities ever to compete on an even basis with the public and private sectors. Instead, PASC says that if government wants to get the best out of voluntary organisations, a different approach is needed - characterised as “intelligent commissioning”. The Committee’s detailed recommendations to implement this include:

- concentrating on improved results for service users rather than simply delivering cost savings;

- identifying opportunities to advertise contracts on a smaller scale, so that smaller organisations can compete;

- working with local community organisations to identify what matters to users of a particular service, and what types of organisation might be best placed to meet those needs;

- support for organisations which struggle with commissioning processes; and

- an end to “perverse practices” such as clawing back surpluses from organisations who deliver at a lower cost than expected, or unnecessarily short-term contracting.

The Committee rejects as “alarmist” the suggestion that current policy is threatening the sector’s independence or ability to campaign. However, the report identifies risks to service users when services are contracted out of the public sector, notably that users’ rights may be unintentionally limited. The Committee calls for an extension to the Human Rights Act, declaring a principle that “the human rights of public service users should not be affected by the identity of the service provider”.

Tony Wright MP, Chairman of the Committee, said that the policy of commissioning from the sector showed real potential, but needed to be pursued carefully:

“We’ve been told for some time that the ideology of public service delivery is that there is no ideology - what matters is what works. So it’s strange to discover that nobody seems to know what works. That said, the principle must be right that public services are provided by whoever will deliver the best outcomes for service users. Sometimes, that will be an organisation from the third sector. Where it is, commissioners need to be able to identify that fact and act accordingly.

Ultimately, it all comes down to intelligent commissioning. If the users of a service particularly value local knowledge, then you don’t want to package the contract so that only large national organisations can compete. Commissioning has to be about more than realising cost savings through competition. I think the Government has got that message. What is needed now is to translate that message into action on the ground.”


Committee Membership: Tony Wright (Chairman) (Lab) (Cannock Chase), Mr David Burrowes (Con) (Enfield, Southgate), Paul Flynn (Lab) (Newport West), David Heyes (Lab) (Ashton under Lyne), Kelvin Hopkins (Lab) (Luton North), Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Con) (Bridgewater), Julie Morgan (Lab) (Cardiff North), Mr Gordon Prentice (Lab) (Pendle), Paul Rowen (Lib Dem) (Rochdale), Charles Walker (Con) (Broxbourne), Jenny Willott (Lib Dem) (Cardiff Central)

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