Editorial: Take a long spoon if you sup with ministers

Charities should remember that their greatest asset is their independence.

The Department of Health is planning to spend £75m over the next three years on Change4Life, a campaign to encourage people, especially children, to eat better and take more exercise in the hope that they will be healthier and live longer.

Ministers are keen to get voluntary organisations to join Change4Life, partly because they know that people might pay more attention to messages that come from the sector rather than government.

Last week, the Cabinet Office issued a research report from its Strategy Unit that showed social mobility in Britain virtually ground to a halt in the 1980s and will need help to regather the kind of momentum it had earlier in the 20th century. The report says a vital factor will be educational achievement, which is crucially determined by social, family and economic circumstances in the early years. Ministers are keen to ensure that voluntary organisations make their voices heard on these issues in advance of a planned policy document at the end of the year. In due course, ministers will probably want the sector to espouse the policy.

It's a welcome development of recent years that Whitehall departments are beginning to respond to encouragement from the Office of the Third Sector and others to take the sector into account in their main policies and activities. That can mean better funding, commissioning, partnership and consultation. It might also mean a tendency to take the sector for granted and try to co-opt it to the task of pushing through the latest political initiatives.

Much of the voluntary sector is configured to work for social justice and improvement, and if governments decide to put money and resources into such causes there is plenty of scope for working together. The cases cited above might well fall into this category. But charities and voluntary organisations should consider things cautiously and case by case, remembering that they are often at their best when marching with the awkward squad rather than lining up behind governments. They should keep in mind that their greatest asset is their independence, and when they accept an invitation to sup with governments they should take a long spoon. Ministers are fond of saying that they want the sector to test and challenge them, but what they perhaps want most is the sector on their side.

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