2004 PREVIEW: MINISTERIAL VIEWPOINT - We must enable citizens to take up the initiative

2004 will be a busy year for the voluntary and community sector and for the people who are involved with it. We face a big opportunity - which is also a big challenge - in liberating the potential of voluntary and community organisations to help citizens shape our society. This sense of the citizen being the driver of change through voluntary organisations is not just confined to local bodies, it is as true for the large national charity as for the local community organisation.

Local communities are best placed to define and solve their own problems and we want community organisations to develop their own solutions. The challenge is to build capacity so that voluntary and community groups can give voice to the aims and aspirations of communities and deliver first-class services.

In the coming year, I hope we can make real progress in our aim to put communities in the driving seat. This is difficult to achieve, particularly in the most deprived communities. The sector is well placed to reach into and help empower them, but can still struggle to make a real difference.

Government and the sector will need to work together with local people to find solutions.

We will see major investment in the sector through Futurebuilders and a programme of work on capacity-building and infrastructure. Improving collaboration across voluntary and community organisations is a key to both strands. Of course the sector is independent, but we must put the user first and ensure that public money is spent on making a difference to people's lives. I urge the sector to be open and creative about working together - and this includes merging where it makes financial sense.

The funding climate is tough and set to get tougher. Our own investment of £200m, through Futurebuilders and infrastructure support, is one-off, and we will be wasting public money if we fund initiatives that cannot deliver. Over the next year, I hope we can work with the sector and funders to really crack the problem of sustainability. We want to help build assets and increase earned income in the sector - in part to strengthen an independent sector that can challenge government without being so tied to our purse strings. It is time to end the culture of dependency. It is time to recognise that both parties have rights to be ambitious and have high expectations of each other.

This year will also see parliamentary scrutiny of the draft Charities Bill to update and modernise the regulatory framework for charities. We will also take forward work to increase giving and make funding and contracting fairer, more flexible and longer term, not just through the generosity, which voluntary and community organisations demonstrate every day, but through promoting more giving. I want to build a more generous society, with the active citizen at the heart of it, supported by a strong partnership of the Government and the sector.

Fiona Mactaggart, Voluntary Sector Minister.

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