On the same day last week, the leaders of the two main political parties ran head to head on the voluntary sector. Michael Howard, leader of the Conservative Party, spoke at the Charities Aid Foundation Conference, while Prime Minister Tony Blair hosted a reception at Number 10 to celebrate the not-for-profit sector. Both spoke about the relationship between government and the sector and congratulated those who work for charities. The day before, Alan Milburn spoke at the NCVO political conference about how the Government should use its manifesto to bring about policy encouraging volunteering.
It is difficult not to be cynical when considering the flurry of government attention to the sector in the past week. It is all too easy for politicians to stand up and make speeches congratulating charities on their hard work.
Associating themselves with charities is always appealing to politicians; the public feel that charities are trustworthy and do good - not characteristics they might generally attribute to politicians. But what the sector really needs is concrete commitments, both in the form of a charities bill to update archaic legislation and a commitment to full funding for contracts from both central and local government.
The sector can take some encouragement from the fact that the Prime Minister has acknowledged the importance of the sector, usually a focus of interest to the Home Office. It was also refreshing to see people who work on the ground for voluntary and community groups at Downing Street, rather than just the usual list of the great and the good. But the sector needs results, not just words.
There are a number of people in and close to government who are determined to push the sector up the agenda and believe that those in the upper ranks of political parties should make a commitment to its future. Let's hope they are successful, and then hopefully charities will get some real changes rather than just a pat on the back.