Shelter dispute: charity begins at home

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Oscar Wilde once wrote that "charity creates a multitude of sins".

Were he alive today, Wilde would probably have singled out charity Shelter's chief executive, Adam Sampson, as one of the sinners. Sampson has launched a savage assault on his employees, forcing pay cuts and an extended working week on frontline staff who provide support to some of most deprived in Britain.

Sampson admitted that these were "difficult decisions", while spending £650,000 on sprucing up the head office in London and recruiting consultants and managers to drive through the attacks. Little wonder then that Shelter workers felt compelled to take national strike action for the first time in their 41-year history. This is unlikely to be the last occasion for class antagonisms to erupt in the voluntary or "third" sector, as New Labour apostles of the "Third Way" have rebranded it.

In this magazine the PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka, exposed how churches in Stirling provided food vouchers as a result of cuts in the Department for Work and Pensions. He also railed against the awarding of contracts to charities and companies to carry out work performed by his members facing job cuts.

In an article about the Shelter dispute, the Society Guardian's editor, Patrick Butler, described the forces driving the attacks: "A charity chief executive recently described to me rough cost ratios for a public service contract that his organisation was bidding to renew. The cost to the charity of providing the service was £62 per hour. The existing price of the contract was £54. The likely contract price in the new tender was £46. In other words, a charity that was already subsidising government to the tune of £8 per hour - with money taken from public donations - was considering whether it should increase that subsidy to £16 per hour."

Charities such as Shelter earned their reputation not only by providing some relief to those in need but also through campaigning vigorously against the worst effects of Tory policies during the 1980s and 1990s. When Ken Loach, whose film Cathy Come Home inspired the charity, calls on donors to withdraw their support, you know that New Labour's neoliberal policies are failing those who are in need.

Local authorities, primary care trusts, government agencies and departments are obliged to market test their services. And with dwindling public sector budgets, the diversion of significant lottery funds to staging the Olympics in London, not to mention the anxieties around the current financial crisis, competition for contracts is likely to intensify.

This provides the rationale for a trend in the voluntary sector that is not confined to Shelter: the introduction of commercial "expertise" into their management structures.

And with these experts come their customs and their language of branding, return on investment, cost-effectiveness and rationalisation. The best response to the way Labour is continuing to decimate essential services was shown by the strike and marvellous picketing by Shelter workers.

If that kind of struggle can be combined with the struggles of those public sector workers who Labour has put in direct competition with them, we may yet have a chance of arresting, if not reversing, the attacks on the public and voluntary sectors.