Comment: Going off in search of the grass roots

The reverberations from Gordon Brown's speech at a recent NCVO-organised event continue.

John Knight
John Knight

He set out a number of initiatives that would allow government to engage more effectively with citizens, with the voluntary sector being pivotal. I have reservations about the ability of such initiatives to really reach out to the grass roots.

The Directory of Social Change was quoted also raising this point in a Charity Finance web article. Putting aside its thinly concealed annoyance at not being invited to the event, I realised our shared concern was superficial. Its argument was that, by talking to NCVO members, Mr Brown was ignoring grass-roots views. Not so. The NCVO has strong connections with grass-roots organisations, and more than a fifth of its membership is from organisations with incomes of less than £10,000. The Waterloo Community Development Group and the Somalia Welfare Community Association were just two of a number of grass-roots organisations present at the event.

The DSC added that the Government sidestepped the 250 umbrella bodies in the voluntary sector, preferring to speak to "the likes of NCVO, Navca and Acevo". Again, not so. I think of Every Disabled Child Matters, a consortium of four organisations that recently extracted £396m from the Department for Children, Schools and Families to further its policy objectives, and the Voluntary Organisations Disability Group, which in the last administration secured enhanced Criminal Records Bureau checks for people working with vulnerable adults.

Finally, the DSC said it was excluded because its "approach to government policy towards the sector is one of healthy scepticism". Well, I am not uncritical of government policy regarding the sector, but I was invited, and asked two questions: would the new democracy for campaigning organisations reach out beyond the usual suspects? And would the proposed Speaker's Conference also examine the poor representation of disabled people in the Commons? Neither answer was satisfactory, but that's politics.

- John Knight is head of policy and campaigns at Leonard Cheshire: jk.thirdsector@googlemail.com.

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