Voluntary services have succumbed to the privatisers

The Coalition is turning voluntary services into a cheap adjunct to privatisation - and far too many of those in voluntary services have been complicit.

Andy Benson
5 March 2015

For those involved in providing public services and for those who use them, cuts to provision, especially at local level, and the rapid privatisation of what can’t be shut down has been the main show in town. The latter, of course, has a long and chequered history including, to its shame, under the New Labour Government. The Coalition administration has accelerated the pace of privatisation and imposed cuts to the living standards of the poorest that are the largest in memory. Thus we are faced on the one hand with rising and increasingly desperate demand from vulnerable individuals and whole communities, and on the other, an ‘arms race’ between private, especially global, corporations for the chance to make big profits from those human needs.

What is less well known is how these neoliberal forces have shaped, co-opted – indeed clobbered – whole swathes of voluntary action into helping these changes along, in many cases with voluntary groups themselves joining the new order.

‘Voluntary action’ is, in its broadest sense, a massive activity involving millions of people doing all manner of things simply because they want to. Voluntary action occupies a space within civil society that is distinct from the State and the private sector; a space in which citizens come together freely to exercise self-determining collective action. Voluntary groups do not have to exist; they are an expression of citizen action, usually driven by compassion, concern and determination to make the world a better place. Without the pluralism and vigour of this ‘ungoverned space’ we will be in deep trouble, and democratic freedoms in society will be significantly curtailed.

Historically many voluntary groups have provided services to people and communities. This can be a positive contribution where they do the things that government cannot, will not, or should not do; to complement, not substitute for public services and entitlements; to innovate, reach excluded groups, aid access to mainstream services, offer services which have to be independent (such as advice and advocacy) and act as commentator and critic of public services and State action.

However, once a voluntary group becomes a servant of the State, or - via privatisation - the private sector, this unique role is compromised and undermined. This is exactly what has happened.

Changes in funding are key

The shift in state support to voluntary groups from grants to contracts and the parallel rise of commissioning and procurement regimes explains how successive governments have been able to ‘rein in’ independent voluntary groups and recast them as delivery vans for their own policies and programmes. At the same time, cuts to funding, alongside the deliberate creation of competitive markets, now means that many groups, especially those who are small or medium-sized and locally-based, are now struggling to stay afloat and maintain levels and quality of services for their users. Many have already closed down.

Outside of the visible ‘service providers’ the impact is also felt in informal settings – community groups, disability groups and groups within black and minority ethnic communities find they are expected to pick up the pieces from policies that create catastrophic hardship and discrimination, without either resources or recognition.

But there are also winners in this new zero-sum game. There is a growing gap between the larger charities and the rest. The former are better equipped to play the procurement game and many have moved into competing with each other and local groups for services contracts. Some of these charities (including housing associations) are aggressive and predatory in their approach.

‘Social enterprise’ – the new must-have

Many voluntary groups have fallen for the lie that they will survive and prosper by becoming more ‘businesslike’ and ‘entrepreneurial’. Turning to the private sector for finance (‘social investment’) creates new forms of debt dependency and new imperatives to create surpluses from their services to disadvantaged clients and communities. At the same time, dependent sub-contractor relationships with global corporations are seen as an acceptable way forward, helping private pockets to maximise profits from poverty.

What about the workers?

The impact of contracting, professionalisation, and new ‘managerialism’ has taken its toll on frontline paid staff, increasingly on the receiving end of cuts to pay and conditions, increasing use of zero hours contracts, the exploitation of weakened employment rights and heavy-handed management. Whilst in the world of contracted services volunteers are seen as ‘unpaid labour’, helping to cut costs and prices to the detriment of personal development and acts of solidarity between ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’.

The failure of sector ‘leadership’

Particularly noteworthy has been the failure of sector ‘leadership’ bodies like the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO). These and other national ‘infrastructure’ groups have shamefully failed to oppose the discriminatory and disproportionate cuts to poor and vulnerable communities. Nor have they defended voluntary groups themselves from the constraints placed on them by the ‘new normal’. Indeed, many national bodies have actively encouraged voluntary groups to enter the ‘marketplace’, bid to take over public services and form alliances with private contractors, many with reputations for criminality, dishonesty, poor employment practices and other abuses.

At local level too, most Councils for Voluntary Services have accepted cuts, competitive behaviours and subservience to commissioning regimes without question. And there are few examples of involvement of these umbrella groups in campaigns to defend community rights or oppose cuts.

The silencing of dissent

A crucial and damming effect of these changes has been the alarming extent to which the critical voice of the voluntary sector has been silenced. Open dissent, even mild informed criticism is now widely seen by local and national State agencies as unacceptable. This atmosphere is maintained by both contractual and informal means. There is a massive loss of ability on the part of voluntary services to think, act and speak independently, and especially to speak plainly and passionately where injustice and privation are being visited on their users and beneficiaries. Resistance and opposition takes place outside the world of professionalised voluntary services.

Why has this happened – the politics of today

The policy changes that impact on voluntary agencies are presented by government and their supporters as ‘common sense’ responses to a changing world. The reality is that they sit firmly within the ideologically driven programme to transform British society and the role of the state: the dismantlement of the post-war welfare settlement and the social protections it embodied, the privatisation and outsourcing of public services, increased inequality, and support for a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. Though voluntary groups are bit players in this, invited at the margins to join this ‘race to the bottom’, the loss of their independence and capacity for radical social action is a serious setback.

Whilst New Labour appeared to regard the voluntary sector as ‘preferred providers’, the Coalition sees the sector as adjuncts to private corporations or there only to pick up the pieces to meet needs from which no profit can be extracted. Too many within the voluntary sector have sown the seeds of their own demise by accepting this new role that has been set out for them and keeping silent about the consequences both for them and for their users.

Where are voluntary services heading and what can be done to stop this?

The fortunes of voluntary services now hang on the coat tails of privatisation, the shrinking of collective responsibility for social protection and the future for public services. The future is looking bleak; voluntary and community services now face a decisive moment in their history.

Nonetheless, there is mounting evidence that many of those working within the current environment are unhappy and angry about the situation they find themselves in, though fragmented and isolated. It is now vital that all who are concerned for the future of independent voluntary services in the struggle for social justice take a stand and lead a truthful and plainly spoken campaign to change the mood and the music. This should include exposing the myths of privatisation and the false promise of voluntary sector participation in it; restating a commitment to stand with and speak out for the rights of users and embattled communities; pressing for the replacement of commissioning and procurement regimes by grants and service improvement plans that value voluntary services as complementary rather than replacements for public services; and building genuinely representative leadership groups that will fight to regain a proper place for voluntary services within a progressive and dynamic civil society.


This article is drawn from a year- long Inquiry conducted by the National Coalition for Independent Action. Fight or Fright: Voluntary Services in 2015 is a summary of 17 research reports which examine aspects of the current voluntary sector environment. All are downloadable from the NCIA website (

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