Government policy: Election 100 days on

Tony Blair's Labour Party went into this year's election promising a great deal of change for the third sector, but have things really moved on much? Mathew Little reports, and four sector players give their verdicts on the opposite page.

Labour's election manifesto for 5 May name-checked the voluntary sector profusely. Charities were lauded as "innovative, efficient and effective" in the delivery of public services. New opportunities were promised for job seekers and offenders, for schools and the NHS. The sector's potential for service delivery "should be considered on equal terms", Labour pledged.

To some this was a long overdue recognition that the sector could succeed where the state had failed. Others were worried that the broader role of voluntary organisations in cementing social capital and creating a strong civil society was being overshadowed by a transformation into the "human face" of public service reform.

But the early evidence from Labour's third term suggests that this analysis was misjudged. Moves towards the new dawn in not-for-profit public service provision are proceeding very slowly, although a new neighbourhood agenda has emerged, promising a major role for community groups.

The most immediate development after 5 May was a change in how responsibility for the voluntary and community sector was distributed across government. The bipolar balance of power between the Treasury and the Home Office has been broken up. Tony Blair's new Government saw the Cabinet-level post of communities minister created in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister - a role given to New Labour intellectual and former Blair speechwriter David Miliband.

The ODPM now has responsibility for creating "sustainable communities", encouraging civic pride and increasing public participation. That may sound like policy wonk's verbiage, but senior figures in the community sector are cautiously optimistic about a real new direction in policy.

Miliband is responsible for a major review of local government, which could see power over assets and services taken away from councils and given to local communities and the groups that represent them. He has promised "more opportunities for communities to have influence and choice over how their local neighbourhood is run".

"There is genuine commitment to looking into moving power to a local level," says Ben Hughes, chief executive of community sector umbrella body Bassac. "We have real enthusiasm for the exploration of alternative forms of local governance. It could really shift power to local communities and give local people decision-making power they simply don't have at the moment."

Proposals currently being considered include neighbourhood agreements between local communities and mainstream service providers such as the police, the NHS, schools and locally elected neighbourhood forums. Hughes, a member of the ODPM's neighbourhoods project board, says the jury is still out on the Government's plans.

"Is it a tweak of local government or a more radical review of local governance?" he wonders. "I'm interested in something far more radical than a tweak and a tuck. I would like to see much greater recognition being given to participative democracy. That's something our members are central to achieving. It's the basic skills stuff - supporting residents to the first step of engaging with mainstream structures. For most users of our settlements and social action centres, elected democratic processes are a complete irrelevance."

Hughes says community groups and voluntary organisations could provide a vital role in equipping communities with the skills necessary to hold public sector organisations to account. These could be simple IT training or befriending schemes. On the other side of the fence, the sector could also train local councillors in community development issues, participation awareness or impact assessment.

But Hughes cautions that the Government's vision will prove fruitless without money to back it up. "It's encouraging that this rhetoric is in place but it could easily become discouraging if we see some will but no commitment," he argues. "This is not just about bending the mainstream. It has to be a trigger for change that needs investment."

Tony Blair's promise on 6 May to "focus relentlessly" does not seem to have extended to the much-heralded plans to extend voluntary sector involvement in public services - indeed, it has not advanced much beyond plaudits in ministerial speeches.

David Blunkett, the Work and Pension Secretary, has arranged a meeting next month with the chief executive of Mission Australia, a Christian organisation that is the largest single provider of employment training for the Australian government. The charity has an office in England and is bidding for New Deal contracts. The meeting could presage the implementation of the manifesto promise to corral the sector into providing "job-seeking services".

Chief executives body Acevo, the most enthusiastic prosletyser in the sector for a greater public service role, kept up the pressure on ministers with the publication of a book last month. Communities in Control: the new third sector agenda for public services examined the potential of the sector in employment training, children's services and correctional services. But Acevo warned at the time that the Government "will fail to meet is manifesto commitments on public service reform unless it makes better use of the third sector's expertise".

Nick Aldridge, director of strategy at Acevo, says this expertise can be best applied to help the socially excluded, the bottom 10 per cent of society.

"The Social Inclusion Unit says quite openly that government targets have totally failed in these areas," says Aldridge. "Job Centre Plus failed to have any impact on long-term worklessness. It's the same for prisoners: the Government is starting to realise that just locking people up isn't enough. Again, this is an area to which countless voluntary organisations have a lot to bring."

Acevo wants a transfer of assets and budgets to the voluntary sector comparable to the passing of public housing stock to housing associations in the 1980s. But Aldridge confesses that ministers are making only "the first tentative steps" towards this engagement with the sector and lack a clear, unambiguous message from Number 10 that this is the way ahead.

"We haven't had a concrete commitment from the centre to drive this forward," he says. "We are calling for an implementation team across government departments to engage with the third sector. At the moment we are trying to solve the same problems 30 times."

Joe Saxton, chair of the Institute of Fundraising, says that Labour has shown since the election that the sector is not a priority and has fobbed it off with "more nebulous, New Labour-style policy by waffle. What's actually happened is very little; it's more about what's not happened."

The Charities Bill, the Government's flagship modernisation of sector law and regulation is winding its slow way through Parliament and has yet to reach the House of Commons. Funding for the self-regulation of fundraising is currently being finalised.

Saxton argues that the Government lacks a "clarity of strategy" towards the third sector. "What you have is lots of little bits of activity that don't join up into a coherent whole," he says. "You have the Russell Commission delivering £150m to youth volunteering - but how does that fit into the 'Giving Nation' initiative? Giving time is well-funded, but giving money is virtually unfunded.

"Even within service delivery by charities, the agenda isn't clear," he says. "Is it about better services, cheaper services or the risk of public service reform not delivering and spreading to charities?"

The NCVO has confessed to serious misgivings about the balance of Government policy towards the sector. Pete Moorey, parliamentary and campaigns officer at the NCVO, says: "Our concern before the election was that too much was being seen through the prism of public services, and the other strand about our role in civil renewal and building social capital was being ignored." Post-election comments from charities minister Paul Goggins have gone some way to allaying those fears, he admits.

Nevertheless, says Moorey, the two strands of Government policy could be melded into a coherent and balanced strategy. "We think both areas should be interlinked so that if the second strand is about the sector being able to involve people more in their local communities, it should also be about the sector being able to include users and beneficiaries in the delivery of public services."

Whether the Government's two strands congeal into a concrete and cogent blueprint for the future of the voluntary sector remains to be seen. Two major pieces of legislation affecting charities - the Charities Bill and the Lottery Bill - are due to be picked apart by MPs when they return from the summer recess in October. Labour's second 100 days could be more pivotal than its first.

'THIS GOVERNMENT HAS MORE TO DO'

Much of the broad thrust of Government intention has been welcomed by the sector, but when it comes to the specifics there is some disappointment.

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI DIRECTOR, LIBERTY

The General Election already seems like an eternity ago. The London atrocity and aftermath possibly present the Government with as great a challenge as democratic politicians ever face. The Home Secretary has dealt with this grave situation with far greater calm and dignity than one might have expected of many of his predecessors. However, suggestions that people might be deported to face torture, the Association of Chief Police Officers' publicised "shopping list" of new powers and the tragedy of Jean Charles de Menezes suggest that the real tests are yet to come.

TONY JUNIPER, FRIENDS OF THE EARTH

Tony Blair's decision to put climate change at the top of the G8 agenda was welcome. It's the biggest threat the world faces, and urgent international action is required. Unfortunately, this view is not shared by President Bush, who prevented any real progress at the summit.

But despite Mr Blair's concerns, UK emissions are rising. A review of UK climate policies is due soon. The PM must lead by example and ensure substantial cuts in UK emissions. Backing a new law to make the Government legally responsible for cutting emissions by 3 per cent annually would be a welcome start.

SHAKS GHOSH, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, CRISIS

It is early days yet, but it is promising to see communities and local government minister David Miliband's focus on creating inclusive communities. Our hope is that as well as focusing on housebuilding and infrastructure, he will also pay attention to the social fabric that glues communities together and ensures homeless people are fully integrated into society.

We are disappointed by the focus on owner-occupation. This is an unrealisable dream for most of the 380,000 hidden homeless people living lonely and isolated lives.

RICHARD HAWKES, CHAIR, BRITISH OVERSEAS NGOS FOR DEVELOPMENT; DIRECTOR, SENSE INTERNATIONAL

The Government should be given credit for what it has done. It has put Africa high on the political agenda and has invested political capital in driving for aid and debt deals. But if it is really committed to defeating poverty, it has to do even more. It must use the EU presidency to lead by example, driving home the implementation of the aid and debt deals and ensuring fundamental changes in world trade. As long as there are people dying of poverty, this Government has more to do.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus