James Purnell is quoted today in the Observer as saying about reforms to get people into work that "Progressives want to make the world a better place. If people can do that using the private sector, the public sector or the voluntary, why not? We are ideologically neutral between all three; we want to use all three."
This is his justification for taking up recommendations from the Freud Review about giving contracts to private companies to get the long term unemployed back into work. I heard David Freud, the author of the report, speak recently, and his priority was less about the benefits of his approach to unemployed people, and more about the importance of creating 'a market in this sector', not just in Britain, but giving providers the chance to 'compete effectively in the growing international market for this sort of contract'.
Far from being an ideologically neutral report focused on the needs of the unemployed, Freud's main interest is in opening up new opportunities for private and large not for profit contractors to receive handouts from our government and others. Less 'Welfare to Work', in other words, than welfare for corporations. Nothing 'ideologically neutral' about it at all.
The private and voluntary sector can help people into work, and add something which the public sector hasn't been able to. I've spoken to people who found work thanks to support from Reed in Partnership and had nothing but praise for them and bad words for Jobcentre Plus. But the key to successful involvement of the private and voluntary sector is that the way that they are involved is based on the needs of the people who will use their services, not whatever their lobbyists suggest would be most congenial for them and allow them to win contracts in other countries.
One test of who really benefits from these reforms will be whether there is any oversight. The experience from the USA and Australia is that private and voluntary sector providers make lots of mistakes when first awarded the contracts. Clearly it will be in their interest and that of the government to avoid scrutiny of any mistakes here right from the beginning, and to claim that everything has got better. One way of making sure that this doesn't happen would be to set up independent regulation, to help protect people who would otherwise find their benefits cut off or forced into totally unsuitable work (e.g. parents forced to take work and leave their children alone at home).
So will James Purnell make sure that this kind of regulation is put in place, to give the new system the best chance of being successful, however irksome it might be for the contractors to have their mistakes scrutinised and challenged? Let's hope he remembers who helped him get his job - people who've suffered from unemployment and look to Labour to be on their side.