Back the White Bill

Tom’s column for Progress Online, September 2011

Guidance from CLG that councils should not pass on ‘disproportionate cuts’ to the voluntary sector comes six months, almost to the day, since Eric Pickles promised it to the NCVO annual conference. Back in March the sector’s representatives celebrated – though even then it was far too late as budgets were already being drawn up with devastating consequences for many charities.

The funding guidance is a slimmed down rejigging of what went before. Ominously, it does not define ‘disproportionate’ too closely, allowing statutory services to perhaps mount stronger defences than discretionary ones. It also redefines the playing field by saying that cuts to ‘the voluntary and community sector and small businesses as a whole’ should not be disproportionate, thus opening the door to allowing one hundred per cent cuts in the funding of some voluntary sector organisations offset by minimal cuts in commercial payments to private businesses.

The guidance is silent on what will happen to councils who fail to heed it: judicial review is an expensive and risky undertaking for a rejected small charity to mount. It is also silent on CLG’s enthusiasm for the Compact – Labour’s code of practice for third sector / government co-working which Nick Hurd relaunched in January – thus confirming the widespread belief that Pickles doesn’t give a damn about the Compact.

Putting aside the question of whether such guidance is true to the spirit of localism, is it worth having? Yes, but not for the reason of disproportionality.

In a single page the guidance redefines ‘best value’ in a way we should have done years ago. Fans of Corporate Social Responsibility will recognise the sentiment embodied in the phrase:

‘Under the duty of best value, therefore, authorities should consider overall value, including economic, environmental and social value, when reviewing service provision.’

Here is the concept of the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit within a government policy and it is very welcome indeed.

However…

A year ago, the first steps towards writing these revolutionary criteria into the law relating to public procurement were made. Tory MP Chris White proposed his Public Services (Social Enterprise and Social Value) Bill which, with the deserved support of many Labour MPs including Hazel Blears, got its second reading on 19 November. A Money Resolution was subsequently passed enabling it to ultimately become law but what has happened to it since? In ten months no time has been found for its committee stage which is not currently scheduled, let alone its third reading and Lords stages. Have the forces of the Big Society deserted the standard of Social Value?

Labour MPs should be pressing the Government to get the White Bill back on its feet; ministers say they support it. Had it already been in law much of this new, brief CLG guidance would not have been necessary and an important principle about procurement, partnership and fair play would have been won.