Opinion: Human Services as a Profit Center in the UK

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July 19, 2011; Source: Morning Star | In the U.S., it sometimes feels off-limits to criticize the wealthy too directly, because they are likely to be among the major individual donors targeted by nonprofits’ fundraisers. But in the UK, the “big society” concept of nonprofits (and social enterprises) carrying out a significant amount of public service delivery has sparked some tough debate.

This op-ed by Doug Nicholls, a national officer for Unite the Union, challenges notions about the potential competitiveness of nonprofits and the potential contributions of rich people. He contends that Prime Minister Cameron’s “austerity budget” is a plan to “change the way in which Britain is governed forever,” a phrase uttered by Chancellor George Osborne when the budget was first introduced. 

Nicholls suggests that the Cameron budget is different than the ideological conservative concepts of having people pull themselves up by their bootstraps (with the help, perhaps, of charitably supported nonprofits).  Rather, it is to replace charities with for-profit businesses able to make a profit out of the provision of once nonprofit-delivered public services: “The market is moving into human care and the human care is moving out.” 

Nicholls believes that Cameron’s big society concept (and Osborne’s budget proposal) equates to “centrally  seeking to undo the traditions of community empowerment, civic engagement, volunteering and collective activity that have been at the heart of Britain’s social reform culture.”  Nicholls adds, “Voluntary activity in the community has always been with a purpose, usually a passion to achieve greater equality and social justice . . .  [but] as soon as the profit motive and market forces enter this equation and governments direct money to private companies to compete for service contracts, this ethos disappears.”

Nicholls ends his no-holds-barred polemic with a powerful statistic about class stratification:  “The 1,000 richest people in Britain could donate all their wealth and fund the entire national youth service at current levels for 1,319 years or the entire government expenditure for over half a year. They could event pay of the growing national deficit three times over.” —Rick Cohen