Editorial: The debate is all about the state

There are similarities between the policy aims of the two main parties - the argument is about the role that government should play, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

There's a certain irony in the assertion by Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, that he can't remember a time when the profile of the sector was higher in the public policy debate than it is now. It's been high in the past few weeks, all right, because of the clumsy announcement in the Budget that the government wants to cap tax relief on charitable donations as part of its drive against tax avoidance.

Whether the hot-blooded debate that has resulted from this will work to the sector's advantage in the longer term is a moot point. It's possible that people will remember the importance of incentives for philanthropy. Alternatively, they might become more aware of the importance of fair taxation, which is also a vital a source of income for the sector.

Either way, Hurd is keen as he marks up two years in office to divert attention from the tax relief cap to what he says is the steady progress of the government's agenda for the sector. His view is that an array of initiatives are beginning to work, and that the sector is drawing on its pragmatism and resilience to find a way through the cuts that ministers perceive as inevitable.

Gareth Thomas, Hurd's Labour shadow, says on page 10, by contrast, that the big society is a fig leaf for an ideological drive to roll back the boundaries of the state; and he sees the non-consultation of Hurd in advance of the tax cap as symptomatic of a lack of leadership and influence.

When you look beneath the tribal exchanges, however, it transpires that both camps have a fairly similar agenda of improving social investment and commissioning practices, and empowering local communities. There's some agreement on methods, such as the establishment of Big Society Capital.

The disagreement essentially revolves around the extent of the state's involvement in the various processes. It's true that Labour sees a bigger role for the state. The important question is how extensive that role should be if support is to be ensured for beneficiaries of that part of the sector that doesn't easily attract donors and philanthropists.

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