Thursday, 26 November 2009

Civil society Talks ( at length...) Burnham and Limricks.

On to the last leg of the deliberations. We appear to have come up with a document of some 37 pages and 139 paragraphs. This process appears to have no facility for editing or prioritising. So we have a rag bag collection of everyone's ideas and hobby horses. A shopping basket where you presumably dip in and choose what you want. This is supposed to go to CHOGM Foreign Ministers on Saturday. Whether they read it I must doubt! I think a better way of acting must be found. After all the top two issues at this CHOGM are climate change and the global recession. Those are the issues we should have concentrated on.

This reminds me a bit of the third sector in the UK some decades back. Unnoticed and unloved till we got our act together and became more professional in our approach.

But nevertheless a great gathering of sector bodies and people and there is always value in the interchange of ideas and the challenge of debate. After all in some parts of the Commonwealth, respect for civil society goes as far as jail if you get too stroppy. So no good me telling them about public sector service delivery! We are reminded of the problems civil society faces when a number of leading Zimbawean leaders were arrested put in jail and charged. Fortunately their trial led to their release. As Stuart Etherington said, "Nevertheless, it was shocking to be reminded that in some parts of the world simply speaking up on behalf of your community can get you arrested." It's a good reminder that at the root of our third sector is an independent spirit that can challenge Government or established ideas and practises. And often the great advances in society come from just some small voluntary groups or visionary sector leaders. Never underestimate the power of one individual to change the world was how the sociologist Margaret Mead put it.

Tomorrow it's a different pace as we go to Tobago to meet with civil society groups and hear about efforts to conserve the local habitat. As this involves a visit to Bucco Reef it is going to be popular, even with getting up at 4.30 am to get the ferry.

Now back to Andy Burnham's policy change on commissioning. I feel sorry for officials in DH. But I was amused by the Orwellian newspeak of the spokeperson who had to reply to the Health Services Journal on the Andy Burnham story . The Journal reported:

"A Department of Health spokesman said the voluntary sector would continue to "make a valued contribution".

He said: "These decisions will be made locally and we will not choose to exclude either NHS or private providers on grounds of ideology - quality and what is best for patients must always come first."

So let's unkindly dissect this piece of newspeak. The Third sector is "valued". Just not valued as much as NHS provision which is now their " preferred supplier". And as for not excluding sectors on ideological grounds at local level I do just wonder how this is consistent with advice to them by the DH that one sector- the public sector NHS- is now the preferred supplier. Perhaps my Oxford English Dictionary is an old edition when it suggests preferred means choosing one over another?

But I should not be too unkind to him. He was doing his job in the finest traditions of the British Civil Service. Not his fault the Boss has tied them all up in knots. We must hope Andy will see the difficulties he has caused for the third sector on this. I believe that with proper pressure we can get this changed or modified. We must- our members demand it.and it is not that I think Andy has any animus against the sector. Far from it. He has shown great support and sympathy in the past. He is a strong supporter of delivery through the third sector so I remain confident that sense will prevail.

But let us take them at their word. If they think patients always come first they will issue a statement withdrawing the " preferred supplier " statement or make it clear they still want the third sector treated on" equal terms" as their Manifesto commits them to. I await developments.
However this is nothing compared to the thoroughly disgraceful attacks on charities in the letter's page of The Guardian. What I find particularly deplorable is that unions have members in our sector but feel unrestrained in denigrating their work. Its reprehensible. They see them as second class members. They even patronise Macmillan nurses (CEO, CiarĂ¡n Devane, is a member) by spelling their name wrong and saying they just provide " add - on services" as though this vital service is somehow a dispensable luxury and not really mainstream at all. Perhaps they think hospices are "add- on "? Or Marie Curie nurses or the vital work of mental health staff in many third sector organisations. In other words staff in third sector organisations are not really that important and ought to know their place in the pecking order. "Public Sector good , Third Sector bad" is now the new motto of the unions.

I have already had reports from members that commissioners at local level are changing their tune. Certainly the unions are now very active working against third sector provision. We are going to monitor the situation and if we see anti competitive behaviour we will take appropriate action on our members behalf.

We now need a firm statement from the Conservatives that they will reverse this policy change.

Now I'm off to see a cousin of my Mother's, Paul Limrick, who lives out here with his family. He is one of the famous Limricks of Union Hall in Ireland and a namesake of his, the Revd Dr Paul Limrick was the first Bishop of Calcutta. So perhaps not surprising to see Paul ending up in Trinidad. We shall have a fun night.

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