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Back in the misty past when she was minister responsible for regeneration, Hilary Armstrong used to have a catchphrase: ‘What matters is what works.’ We haven’t heard it much lately.

We do, however, still hear another catchphrase which might have been one of Ms Armstrong’s, but is now one of those tedious ministerial mantras everyone uses: there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Strangely, I’ve never heard anybody suggesting that what matters is what doesn’t work, or that there really is a one-size-fits-all solution. Perhaps in the world ministers inhabit people really do say such things. I assume, though, that what our political leaders are trying to tell us is that we should all use a bit of common sense.

In a world in which a disproportionate response to events appears to be becoming increasingly acceptable, that’s good advice.

Too often, though, we find that having hit upon a policy - often for entirely sensible reasons - ministers and their functionaries are determined to push it through, however cacophonously the alarm bells ring. Take the reform of the voluntary and community sectors. Few would argue that grant funding as we’ve known it is a utopian ideal, or that the political whims of councillors should be a guide to which vulnerable people get which services from which charities. The idea of providing long-term security to efficient charities by agreeing contracts to provide services clearly has the potential to provide a transparency, accountability and continuity that has been sadly lacking for too long.

But though this be method, yet there is madness in it. The British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres warned this week that community organisations were being forced to the brink of collapse. The ‘contract culture’ was undermining their sustainability, preventing them from helping people with multiple needs in the best way, and removing their independence and accountability to communities rather than funders.

The problem isn’t the concept of contracts. It goes back to Hilary Armstrong’s slogan - what matters is how it works. Moving to a contract culture that is generously funded and flexible enough to respond to local needs and circumstances could be an excellent idea. Imposing a contract culture when spending is being reined in and using it to squeeze those who have least fat is another thing entirely.

Julian Dobson, editor

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