Editorial: A sector in rude health - on the surface

Stephen Cook, editor

What are we to make of the state of the voluntary sector as chief executives recharge their batteries with a spot of sailing or butterfly-collecting, and politicians limp off to the beaches, exhausted by heat and initiative-itis? By most measures, it's in fairly good shape - we're even, after a wait of more than a year, about to get a new Compact Commissioner to advance the cause of a fair deal in public sector partnerships.

The real turning point came when the affairs of charities and the voluntary sector were moved from the Home Office to the Cabinet Office, and put in the care of an energetic and talented new minister, Ed Miliband. Since then, there has been a new sense of urgency over the Charities Bill and the Three Sector Summit has given a fresh boost to the cause of service delivery. Miliband has pledged to spread a sector-friendly culture across Whitehall, and it would be nice if that were to include the prising open of minds in the Treasury, which remain apparently closed to the sector's campaign for reasonable VAT reform.

On the legislative front, there were good gains over percentages and additionality in the National Lottery Act, thanks to some stalwart campaigning by the NCVO and friendly MPs. And on the regulatory front, the Charity Commission continues to show that it's becoming more responsive to customers and more targeted in its interventions - as we speak, Dame Suzi Leather is easing her impeccable loafers under the table at the Bouverie Street HQ. The Fundraising Standards Board is another good initiative.

Why, then, with everything motoring along rather nicely, is there a lurking sense of unease? Perhaps the answer - without being too high-falutin' about it - is that there is an underlying struggle over what might be called the soul of the sector. What are voluntary organisations for? Who do they belong to? Where are they heading?

We have a government resorting to ever more extreme measures as it tries to impose harmony on society - a project as contradictory as the late Willie Whitelaw's famous notion of "going around the country stirring up apathy".There is a danger that the sector will, to some extent at least, be co-opted to this doomed enterprise. And surely its whole purpose is to be a social and moral counterweight to governments - a source of ideas and action that can bring social harmony that is genuine and durable because it emerges from below.

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