Take a typical UK social enterprise conference. What might you expect to learn? Isn’t that Liam Black a funny man? What a passionate speech from Nigel Kershaw! What an inspirational PowerPoint presentation from that young man from Peckham...

A few years ago, I travelled to Paris to a French conference on the role of non-profits in public service delivery. There were no gags, no inspirational speakers and it was all pretty dull stuff. What did I see and learn? How can we argue for a wider definition of Part B Services of General Economic Interest ? To what extent does EU law demand an open competition for compensation for clearly defined services in the public interest? What is the definition of an economic undertaking? Blah Blah Blah.

The debate around the future of the NHS is more or less about how far we let private sector in. While Ministers talk a good game on the role of social enterprises, charities and mutuals, the general rule is that either public services are delivered in-house or there is some kind of competition for services, and then anyone might win. You can cross your fingers that a social enterprise gets the gig but that’s pretty much all you can do. Oh Tesco won. What? They wrote a better bid? Who would have thought they would have been good at selling stuff?

So despite successive Ministers and Governments talking about a greater role for the sector in public service provision, there’s almost nothing they can do. And if people want to see an NHS with a diversity of providers but (using Craig Dearden-Phillip’s words) don’t think the NHS should be a free market and that there are real dangers in losing control of the system to a profit motive, well, they probably can’t have both.


…when EU Competition Law allows the award of uncontested contracts. If the service is defined as a Part B Service of General Economic Interest, then there doesn’t necessarily need to be an open competition. There's some flexibility and a middle way between in-house and open market can be forged.

The door to competition (or marketisation or privatisation – whichever you prefer) has been unlocked already in many service areas. New Labour introduced commissioning and arms-length delivery organisations, turning providers into so-called ‘undertakings’. But a less cut-throat and more collaborative approach is still an alternative to fullv blown competition. How far wide the door is flung may well be determined by the outcomes of some incredibly boring French conferences over the last 10 years.