Last Monday I attended the Children England AGM and 70th anniversary debate. Children England is the national membership body for voluntary sector organisations working with children, young people and families. It represents the interests of members to government and supports members by providing reliable information about policy, safeguarding training for staff and so on. I have followed in the footsteps of at least two of my predecessors at Children North East in chairing the north east Children England group and being a trustee of Children England, known in previous times as NCVCCO (National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations).
The debate asked 'what role should the children and families voluntary sector take in 'Austerity Britain'? In 1942 NCVCCO was formed by voluntary organisations asking a similar question - what role would the sector play in the coming post-war Welfare State? (By chance William Beveridge published his famous report exactly 50 years ago this week, the report which formed the basis of the Welfare State - Beveridge was a researcher for Beatrice Webb and worked with her on her famous 'Minority Report on the Poor Laws and the Relief of Distress' which first articulated the principles of a Welfare State in 1909).
On the one hand Andy Benson of the National Coalition for Independent Action argued that many voluntary organisations are no longer connected to communities or to voluntary action, instead they behave too much like businesses, are too reliant on public sector contracts and therefore can no longer be independent or act on behalf of the communities they purport to represent. On the other hand Chris Snowdon from the Institute of Economic Affairs argued that the voluntary sector should be delivering public services because we are likely to be better at it than the private sector, but voluntary organisations should not be permitted to accept public money and also to lobby because that looks like government lobbying in its own interests.
Prof Kate Pickett, co-author of The Spirit Level and from the Equality Trust spoke eloquently about the voluntary sector continuing to speak up with depth of understanding for the vulnerable, about injustice and suffering.
Sir Roger Singleton (chair of the Independent Safeguarding Authority and government advisor) chaired the debate. The truth is that most voluntary organisations for children are like Children North East a mixture of many things. Most are partly funded by government to deliver public services and partly from grants we obtain to fund work we think is necessary. Most use volunteers as well as paid staff to deliver services. Most have local presence in one or more communities where their projects are based. We are in daily contact with vulnerable children, young people and families which gives us in-depth understanding of the problems they face. Knowing what we know and seeing what we see every day it is impossible not to be moved to speak out or enable children, young people and families own voices to be heard.
Maggie Jones, Chief Executive of Children England summed it up beautifully. The voluntary sector she said creates value out of nothing. We take gifts of people's time as volunteers and small amounts of money and turn them into social value. Like the fairy story we create gold from straw. This is the real value of the voluntary sector which is far removed from the current preoccupation with who should 'deliver' public services and a bewildering array of 'financial products' to finance public sector contracts.. The simple fact is there are people in need and their number is growing, the state is not going to provide them in the ways we have become used to over the last 50 years, voluntary organisations harness the compassion of people who want to help and make a difference. That is what voluntary organisations have always done and will continue to do in 'Austerity Britain'.