Labour's shadow minister for civil society argues that the coalition does not champion the sector effectively
The main complaint Gareth Thomas makes about the charities minister Nick Hurd and the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude is that they fail to provide effective political leadership over the interests of the voluntary sector.
"The rhetoric is that they do see a significant role for the third sector, but there's a lack of clarity about what it might be and how to put it into effect," says Thomas, who took over as shadow charities minister last October. "Ministers are talking a good talk, but not following through in terms of persuading colleagues across government and Whitehall. They're failing to fight for the sector's interests with the Treasury, the Department for Communities and the Department of Health."
He says the best example of what he means was the proposal in the Budget to cap tax relief on charitable donations to £50,000 or a quarter of a donor's income, whichever is higher - one of several banana skins that have recently given the government a nasty series of slips and bruises.
He seizes on the admission by Hurd that the Office for Civil Society was not consulted about the capping proposal: "And that tells a story - are they putting in any effort? It looks like they don't care enough or don't have enough clout in Whitehall to push the concerns of the sector.
"I see no sign that they have the reach or leverage to make sure they're being heard. That's the most disturbing thing - there's nobody really standing up for charities. Their inability to deliver is the biggest problem."
Thomas is the Labour and Cooperative Party MP for Harrow West, next door to Hurd's constituency of Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, and is assiduous in planting parliamentary questions and taking every opportunity to wrong-foot the coalition.
The alleged lack of clout by minister is not his only complaint: he also cites the loss of direct funding of the sector by government departments, the lower than expected level of public service contracts coming to the sector, especially through the Work Programme, and the failure to do more to encourage social finance and extend community interest tax relief.
He points out that ministers anticipated that 35 to 40 per cent of referrals under the Work Programme would go to the sector, but the actual figure is closer to 20 per cent, with some charities getting no referrals at all and many deciding to pull out.
More generally, he says the government has not found effective ways to help the sector gain the financial and risk-taking capacity to rival the private sector over large contracts, nor has it done enough to persuade the City to take social finance seriously.
"The banks seem to think they've done all they need to do by putting some money into Big Society Capital, but something much stronger is required," he says.
So what would Labour do about such matters? The response is unspecific, on the grounds that the party's policy review involves "complex work in a number of teams" on both short and long-term ideas, with no set timetable.
However, Thomas says Labour would not cut public spending as far and as fast as the coalition has and would use the direct funding that remained to grow the capacity of the voluntary sector more effectively.
The three priorities he cites are not dissimilar to those advanced by the government - finding the incentives to grow the social finance market, ensuring that the sector gets a fairer chance in the competition for contracts and creating stronger communities.
But Labour would take a different approach: "For example, we had the Future Jobs Fund that used the expertise of charities more effectively than the Work Programme in getting people back to work.
"We would also be clear that charities have a pivotal role in building communities and developing work at local level in partnership between the third sector, government and the private sector.
"And we wouldn't have been so daft as to push ahead with the cap on tax relief - each of our ministers had the ear and the confidence of Gordon Brown."
What's his view of "arrogant posh boys in government", as cited by Tory MP Nadine Dorries? " I wouldn't use that kind of language." And of the big society? "Nobody takes it seriously any more," he says. "It's not a priority for David Cameron, beyond rolling back the state - he's clearly committed to that. I don't think Francis Maude is interested in the sector except as a way of cutting back the state. I'm sceptical about the role they see for charities."
See also the interview with Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society