Editorial: Ministers take the softly-softly approach to three-year funding

Two years ago, Gordon Brown, who was then Chancellor, made a pledge that three-year funding of the voluntary sector by government departments and public bodies should be the norm.

The undertaking related to the three-year spending round beginning in April this year, and departments have been asked this week to tell the Office of the Third Sector by the end of October what proportion of the grants they've made so far in this financial year are for three years or more, and to give the rationale for those awarded for less than three years. The request comes in the form of guidance issued by third sector minister Phil Hope and Yvette Cooper, Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Well, it's a start. The departments aren't being asked to report on the contracts they have with the sector, nor on the grants or contracts of the agencies or non-departmental public bodies for which they are responsible; instead, they are being asked what preparations they are making for providing that additional information next year. This gradual approach is reflected in the light-touch tone of the guidance, which tells departments: "The intention is not to regulate activity, but ... there may be a need to explore whether best practice is being adopted."

Given that the big beasts of Whitehall aren't very keen on being told by others how to run their affairs, the softly-softly method is probably wise. We are not, after all, dealing here with a matter of urgent political priority, where eggs have to be broken to make omelettes. This is, rather, an attempt to change an element of administrative culture and cannot be effected by overnight diktat. It also has cross-party support, which frees it from electoral pressures and means it won't easily be dropped if there is a change of government.

Fortunately, there are signs that many government departments are beginning to take their relationships with the voluntary sector more seriously, as our feature on page 16 indicates. Three-year funding will no doubt be low on their list of priorities as they scurry from one ministerial preoccupation to another, but that doesn't mean it can't chug on steadily in the background. In the long term, there is probably more to worry about in relation to local authorities, on which the Office of the Third Sector has rather less leverage.

It's a painful irony that serious trouble erupted at the Shaw Trust just as the charity was reaching the height of success in winning government contracts. One moment it seemed to be showing the rest of the sector how things should be done; the next it was locked in the kind of internal dispute all charities dread. The top line is that there has been an "irretrieveable breakdown" in the relationship between managing director Ian Charlesworth and the other two leading lights - the chair of trustees, John Briffitt, and director general Tim Pape, who founded the charity 26 years ago.

Charlesworth is challenging his dismissal and has taken complaints about governance and business practice to the Charity Commission. The charity says that it is essentially an HR question and declines to go into details. An inquiry or employment tribunal might in due course indicate which version is right, but the real explanation is likely to consist of a messy combination of the two.

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