Editorial: Brave new world is still some way off

The vision of a voluntary sector less dependent on the state is a beguiling notion but it will not happen overnight, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

Asked about the government's record on the voluntary sector, Tessa Jowell, Labour's shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, gives the example of the fiscal balance: £250m lost in transitional relief and extra VAT, £125m gained through Gift Aid and inheritance tax, deficit £125m - a story of amputation, as she graphically puts it in and interview with Third Sector magazine.

Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, responds that you can make the figures say whatever you want and he's not playing that game - but he acknowledges that the sector has indeed lost significant amounts.

The game Hurd is playing is, as he puts it, "changing the fundamentals"; he means weaning the sector off public money, drawing in other income, expanding its role in service delivery and revitalising voluntary activity at local level.

Our analysis of the government's first year suggests that he is right when he says it might take five or 10 years to put in place the game-changing opportunities he has in mind - which of course raises the question of whether the coalition or the Conservatives will be in power that long.

The analysis shows that we're still waiting for the Big Society Bank, the white papers on giving and on reform of service commissioning, and the promised alternative approach to sector infrastructure. It's hard to avoid the impression that the cuts were made without sufficient protection for charities while these mitigating measures have been slower to arrive.

It's important, as Hurd says, to make sure that the new measures are the right ones, properly thought out. But many excellent charities and voluntary sector services are at risk of falling down the crevasse between the cuts and the brave new world, and once they have fallen in it will be hard to haul them out.

There is a beguiling aspect to the vision that Hurd shares with David Cameron of a big society with a vibrant voluntary sector less dependent on - and, indeed, liberated from - the state. Even if it's realistic, such a vision will be realised slowly. Not everyone is convinced, and there is still a long way to go.

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