Thursday 3 April 2008

Newham's Mayor Buys Himself A Group of Charities

Newham's executive Mayor, Sir Robin Wales, today completed a process that we first described back in November 2006. At a meeting at the Town Hall, he addressed a select group of local charities who have been awarded contracts to deliver public services on behalf of the council. Wales told them that they represented the 'best of the voluntary sector', the opposite of those he described as 'corrupt and venal', and that they alone would have access to his office and the opportunity to bring him their ideas- ones that the Mayor said he would fund if he liked them. But, warned the Mayor, if the contracts they are undertaking appear to be failing, they can expect to have their money taken away.

All this was presented as some kind of partnership with the borough's voluntary sector. The reality, however, is that it represents its division, for the lifetime of the council's new contracts, into the favoured few and the excluded majority, most of whom are neither 'corrupt' or 'venal' but quietly making an enormous impact on the local community through their underfunded work with local people. The very idea of a new 'inner circle' of charities with special access makes a mockery of the idea of openness and accountability, of Newham council's pledges to ensure equal access to funding and consultation.

And even for the inner circle, it's hardly a genuine partnership when they have so little power and will have to spend the next three years trying to second-guess the whims of Newham's increasingly messianic Mayor. Once part of the inner circle, how many will risk banishment by speaking their minds, even if it means falling from the favours of the Mayor and his courtiers? Furthermore, it's not even as if most of the most-favoured are getting a particularly fair deal. They had originally been promised that they would be able to recover their full costs on becoming Newham council's subcontractors, but that promise has been quietly dropped. There is no way that private sector businesses would ever agree to the demands that the charities have been asked to meet. No wonder they have been given the promise of 'jam tomorrow' - its a very effective way of buying privatisation on the cheap.

And that is where the Mayor's use of the word 'venal' is so troubling. The dictionary defines it as "capable of being obtained for a price", or "acting for reward", or "capable of betraying honour, duty or scruples."

The excluded majority of Newham's voluntary and community organisations might ask, with some justification, why they are the ones who have been painted as mercenary?

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