How things have changed. It now has an 83-page green paper and one of its more forceful young politicians, Greg Clark, is on the case. This is partly, of course, a response to the Government's creation of the Office of the Third Sector and the policy agenda that has gone with that. But it also owes much to the work of Iain Duncan Smith's Commission for Social Justice and its belief that the sector can play a key part in mending what David Cameron calls our "broken society".
So it's not surprising that the sector is, in turn, taking more notice of the Tories and has been out in strength at the party's conference this week. The umbrella body Navca quite sensibly held a session at its recent conference on developing its relationship with the Conservative Party; and as we report this week, nearly half of Navca members who responded to a survey said they viewed the party more favourably after the publication in June of the green paper, Voluntary Action in the 21st Century. One oddity among the results was that 67 per cent of respondents disagreed with the Conservative plan to dissolve the Big Lottery Fund in favour of a "voluntary action lottery fund" that would avoid "diversion of funds to public sector projects".
Meanwhile, as we report on pages 16 and 17, Phil Hope, the Minister for the Third Sector, has been making a fairly good fist of implementing the various sector initiatives that were mostly started under his predecessor, Ed Miliband. There is some scepticism in the sector, however, about whether the Office of the Third Sector has much influence across the rest of Whitehall, and about the progress of the public service delivery agenda. Interestingly, Hope has had a couple of outings on national television recently, defending Gordon Brown at moments when it seemed that no members of the Cabinet were available to do so. When Parliament returns next week, there will be plenty for everyone to get their teeth into, even if there is no challenge to Brown's leadership. But in politics the focus will inevitably be on finance and the economy, while in the real world the role of the sector as society's safety net will become increasingly important as the credit crunch continues to take its toll.