Charities ‘should be subject to human rights’

guardian.co.uk | Human rights and freedom of information legislation should be extended to cover charities and social enterprises that deliver public services, such as care homes, a report said today.

The government already contracts out a range of services — including employment training and social care — to the voluntary sector and is keen to encourage more third sector service delivery.

Today’s report from the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) said there was uncertainty over the human rights of users of the contracted-out services.

A landmark court case in 2002 brought to light the “deeply unsatisfactory” fact that voluntary sector care homes are not considered public authorities under the Human Rights Act and therefore do not have human rights obligations to users, said the report.

And it said it was “essential” to bring third sector providers within the scope of the act, stating: “The human rights of public service users should not be affected by the identity of the service provider.”

All contractors should also be brought within the terms of freedom of information legislation, said the cross-party committee, welcoming a decision by the justice secretary, Jack Straw, to consult on the issue.

The MPs found no evidence that standards of service were “intrinsically lower or higher” in third-sector organisations, and said the onus was on the government to demonstrate that there was anything inherently distinctive about the sector.

They rejected as “alarmist” claims that charities’ independence was being compromised by taking on contracts to deliver services for the state. But they said that further moves to encourage the third sector to take on contracts should be pursued only “cautiously”.

Proof was needed on the “potentially show-stopping” issue of whether any savings from contracting out services actually outweigh the additional cost of monitoring providers’ performance.

However, noting that only 2% of public services by value are delivered by the third sector, the report acknowledged that the whole debate was little more than “a rhetorical storm in a fiscal teacup”.

“We do not want to see a mass transfer of services without significantly stronger evidence that this would be beneficial, and we are heartened that the government does not appear to support such a mass transfer,” the committee said.

The PASC chairman, Tony Wright, said: “We’ve been told for some time that the ideology of public service delivery is that there is no ideology – what matters is what works. So it’s strange to discover that nobody seems to know what works.

“That said, the principle must be right that public services are provided by whoever will deliver the best outcomes for service users. Sometimes, that will be an organisation from the third sector.

“Where it is, commissioners need to be able to identify that fact and act accordingly. Ultimately, it all comes down to intelligent commissioning.”

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “The government has committed to consult widely with all relevant parties on who should be covered by the Human Rights Act, and is already acting to establish clarity on this issue.

“For instance, we have taken legislative action to ensure that local authority social care delivered in private care homes is covered under the act.”

And a spokesman for charity umbrella body the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) said: “The Human Rights Act provides vital protection to vulnerable users of public services. That protection should not depend on whether the service is provided by a public, private or voluntary sector organisation.

“The case for extending the FOI Act is less convincing: imposing a burden that would significantly outweigh the benefits.

“It is already the case that all information provided to commissioners, regulators and other public bodies is in the public domain and can be requested from these bodies under existing FOI Act requirements.”