Editorial: Summer recess may yield a rich autumn

Even before Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, Ed Miliband was telling people that everyone needed a holiday.

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

In and around the Cabinet Office, they must need one even more after the excitements of the transition - including Brown's confirmation of the importance of the third sector and this week's publication of the third sector review. MPs pack their buckets and spades tomorrow, and everyone needs some downtime from a pace that sometimes seems relentless.

Where is it all leading us? There remains a strong suspicion around the sector that the strongest motive of the drive by government to help the voluntary sector to become more professional and businesslike is to increase service delivery. That view is articulated in the final letter on page 15 this week, and there is a good deal of justification for it. In local government, grants are being converted into contracts, and the recent NCVO Almanac and CAF's Charity Trends have confirmed the growing dominance of big charities, many of them service deliverers. The Conservatives have focused on this, and Breakthrough Britain, the report produced by Iain Duncan Smith's Social Justice Policy Group, puts forward ideas to mitigate it. This is an area of policy where the Government may be vulnerable.

But perhaps the best thing about Miliband's year in the Office of the Third Sector was that he took a balanced view and saw that it was possible for the development of the sector to proceed on many fronts at once. He welcomed professionalisation and public service delivery, but talked up the strengths of the public sector as well. Crucially, he insisted that service delivery should not strangle the sector's campaigning role, and he has helped pave the way for real progress: Brown's recognition of the campaigning role of the sector in his announcement on constitutional reform had Miliband fingerprints on it, and hopes are rising that the Charity Commission will soon announce that it is to revise its guidance on campaigning. Miliband also recognised the damaging effect of the loss of small grants, and was instrumental in the Budget announcement of a small grants fund of £20m a year over four years. The money might be small, but the message may be heard and acted on by others.

So with luck, sector leaders will get some sea air before returning in September to take forward the many positive things in the pipeline, not least the Treasury review of Gift Aid and the opportunity to rethink payroll giving. There will no doubt be frustrations, but most of the signs are good.

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