What does a CVS stand for and who with?

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Picture of a signpost saying integrityCVSs are “adrift from the grassroots and they tend to be silent around issues such as welfare reform”. So says the Chief Executive of  Community Action Southwark. “There isn’t that voice. We have been seduced. The more fundamental questions aren’t being asked. That seduction is diminishing voluntary and community action.” And he’s not the only CVS frustrated and unhappy with how CVSs are responding to the pressures on local communities.

A meeting in September, organised by London Voluntary Services Council and NCIA, brought together 16 CVS to talk about the impact of cuts and austerity on their local communities and their role in tackling increasing inequality and injustice.  “Our CVS is not resisting harmful changes and supporting communities under pressure” said one of those at the meeting. Another noted that “public service money is going to large global private companies, which increase poverty and reduce environmental sustainability. It is the CVS role to mobilise against privatisation, whether through private or voluntary agencies.”

In a world of growing economic and social inequalities, local Councils for Voluntary Services (CVSs) feel adrift from local people and under pressure to give the local authorities what they want. They rarely join with local campaigns and activists, working instead with statutory agencies making cuts, and helping their members become competitive in the fight for contracts. Gone is collective action alongside local people. Here comes compliant cheap labour as sub-contractor to the State and private sector .

But amidst this bleak picture, there are new mutual aid models of local co-operation and collective action, with examples of challenge and constructive dialogue with local decision-makers. Some are finding that loss of funding, by throwing off contractual shackles, can result in freedom of action and community benefits.

The critical issues they face and the ways to tackle them resulted in a plan of action for CVSs: linking with local activists and sharing campaign tactics; building alliances between insiders and outsiders; and creating “Civil Society Champions” in every CVSs to get back on the track of social justice.

Final questions were left hanging: what are the changes that CVSs want to see? What does a CVS stand for and who do they stand with? And why isn’t NAVCA, their ‘leadership’ body, shouting about these issues?

NCIA has called on NAVCA to speak out, and act, with others resisting cuts, austerity and privatisation of public services. And to encourage and support its members to do the same.

  • Lorna Prescott

    Thanks Penny, for organising a great meeting for people from CVSs across the country to get together and talk about these important issues.
    I took some of the questions and contributions from the meeting back to a Voluntary Sector Network event in Dudley, I’m hoping to find time soon to blog the notes of the session as it were. I’ll keep you updated as the conversation continues in or part of the world.

  • roundtheblock

    I am very glad to hear that there are examples of positive action by
    CVSs and I am sure there are some cases of principled good practice
    around the country – but I also suspect that these are exceptions rather
    than the rule. Having worked with several CVSs over many years, sat on
    two CVS Management Committees (in London and Yorkshire), worked for
    several other CVSs, both directly and as a self-employed freelancer
    (also in London and Yorkshire) and represented staff in many CVSs as a
    trade union Branch Secretary, I think I have a fairly good idea what
    most of them stand for now. The answer to the question is that most of
    them stand for very little and the people they stand with and alongside
    are (in practice) the commissioning and contracting bodies who dole out
    the jobs and fees for services rendered. I accept that they may well
    play a role in helping some voluntary bodies to adapt to and conform
    with the requirements of the contracting and commissioning process, but
    this is hardly what was envisaged by those who fought to build the CVS
    Movement (and to transform many backward organisations which had their roots in 19th century paternalism) in the sixties and seventies.

    The sad truth is that the majority of CVSs have been neutered and forced (sometimes after putting up a little resistance, and sometimes without so much as a whimper) into adopting roles as facilitators and proponents of the Contract Culture and the wholesale transformation of the Community and Voluntary Sector into little more than a mish-mash of
    competing sub contractors who are helping to dismantle many public
    services and drive down the wages and conditions of people employed to
    deliver vital services and the rapidly shrinking Social Wage.

    It is now nearly two decades since NACVS (now NAVCA) made clear its total abandonment of the principle of independent local CVSs (and their role as Local Development Agencies and not mere agents of the local
    authority) when it acquiesced to, and specifically endorsed, the
    decision by Calderdale Council to cut all funds to Calderdale CVS and
    treat the CVS role as a wholly-owned franchise that the local authority
    could put out to competitive tender on terms that it had unilaterally
    drawn up and which it would monitor and control. Not only did NACVS
    specifically welcome this decision (the Press Release was excruciatingly
    obsequious) but it encouraged neighbouring CVSs to tender for the
    “contract” to run CVS services in Calderdale – in competition with the
    CVS which was still there – when it should have told them that tendering
    for this work was a breach of fundamental principles and incompatible
    with continued membership of NACVS (the “contract” was eventually won by Kirklees CVS – who then discovered that their own constitution
    prohibited them taking on this role; requiring a rapid Rules Revision

    It was true that Calderdale CVS was badly run and
    provided a poor service for the local Voluntary Sector, but that was
    not the point. There was a principle at stake and NACVS (and the CVS
    Movement in general) failed to fight for it – indeed they failed to
    recognise the principle at all. NACVS went down exactly the same path
    that the National Association of Community Relations Councils had gone
    down a few years earlier after Thatcher’s government instructed the
    Commissioners of the CRE (its own appointees) to take control of local
    CRCs; resulting in the forcible abolition of independent CRCs and their
    replacement with “approved” Race Equality Councils.

    If there really are CVSs who have resisted this process of incorporation
    then I would love to hear about them, and to learn how they have
    survived the inevitable loss of statutory sector funding and the lack of
    support and solidarity from their own National Association. I do not
    doubt that there are still some good people working in CVSs who
    recognise a principle when they see it, but I suspect that most of them
    have been forced to grit their teeth and keep their heads down in order
    to keep their jobs. As for the Management Committees of CVSs – well,
    like local authorities they will tend to attract people who are in tune
    with what the CVS is currently doing, or people who have become so used to bending with the prevailing wind that they have forgotten how to
    stand up straight.

    I am sorry to strike a pessimistic note here, but it is necessary to recognise reality. By all means let us hear about successful resistance to this grim and reprehensible process, but we also need to understand just how dire the situation is in most areas.

  • penrose63

    hello roundtheblock….just caught up with your post. as part of the NCIA Inquiry into future of voluntary services I’m contributing a piece about local CVSs, and other local homes, in taking radical social action. I’m afraid I share your views, that CVSs are not the place to look for radical action for local people. I’d like them to be, as I know of many individual CVS workers who want them to be and want to be doing this sort of work. Would be good to hear directly from you about this. drop me a line penny@independentaction.net