Editorial: Political froth hides some serious funding questions

A week of political opportunism has exposed a lack of specific policy commitments, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector
Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector

When Conservative Party leader David Cameron said last month that the growth of public spending in the year 2009/10 would be cut under the Conservatives from the planned 3.4 per cent to 2.6 per cent, Labour spotted a big opportunity.

Cameron said spending on schools, health, defence and international development would be held at planned levels, which meant that increases in other departments would come down from 4.1 per cent to 1 per cent in real terms. That included the Cabinet Office, and it wasn't long before its minister, Liam Byrne, sought to make political capital.

The letter Byrne wrote to his Tory shadow, Francis Maude, jumped to the rather ill-expressed conclusion that cuts on this scale could not be achieved "without significantly wiping out most of the Office of the Third Sector budget". (Can there be degrees of wiping out? Surely you're either wiped out or you're not.)

There followed a welter of figures about small local charities and lost volunteering opportunities. Maude's response was that there were plenty of things you could cut in the Cabinet Office before you reached the OTS budget - notably the advertising people and the omnipresent consultants.

The episode was a classic piece of political scaremongering, and no doubt we will see much more of it from all the main parties before the next general election, which is due to take place within the next 15 months.

But beneath the froth lies a serious question for the voluntary sector. Public money, in one form or another, is now its single biggest source of funding, and shadow charities minister Nick Hurd is right to draw attention to what he calls the "creeping dependence" of the sector on the state.

He says the Conservatives want to promote a more robust and independent sector by nudging the country towards a culture of philanthropy, with tweaks to the regulatory and tax systems (4 December 2008, page 5). We need more detail and some specific commitments before that formula becomes entirely credible.

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