When he became Prime Minister in June 2007, Gordon Brown wasted no time in courting the voluntary sector. Less than a month after he seized the reins from Tony Blair, he published the Third Sector Review, proclaiming that "a successful modern democracy needs at its heart a thriving and diverse third sector".
The review was the result of six months of consultation - the largest ever with the sector - and was well received by the majority of organisations.
But that was more than a year ago, and Brown and his government have since been accused of U-turn after U-turn by other sections of society, including business, which now openly declare they have fallen out of love with Labour.
Is the same true of the voluntary sector? A year after third sector minister Phil Hope was handed the task of implementing the Third Sector Review - a blueprint for the years 2008-11 - do voluntary organisations believe the Government has lived up to its promises?
Stephen Hammersley, chief executive of the Community Foundation Network, points out that, so far as its pledge to strengthen communities is concerned, the Office of the Third Sector has already kept its word. Last month it unveiled the £130m Grassroots Grants scheme, through which small community groups, from local sports clubs to village halls, can access funding. It has also established a £50m local endowment match fund, which was one of the flagship policies of the review. It is hoped that the fund, which is designed to ensure local community groups can continue to secure grants well into the future, will be worth as much as £150m by 2011.
Although Hammersley argues that the tender process for the Grassroots Grants programme, which identified local funders that would distribute the grants, was too complex and may have delayed its launch longer than necessary, he says the Government has succeeded in delivering a solid, decentralised programme. "I was initially fearful for this process because I thought it was designed in a very complicated way," he says. "But they have successfully identified organisations that ought to make a significant difference."
Justin Davis Smith, chief executive of Volunteering England, is equally encouraged by the progress on volunteering. The work by Liberal Democrat peer Julia Neuberger, who was appointed as the Prime Minister's champion on volunteering, on how volunteers could be better used in the health service has prompted a consultation by the Department of Health. Her current project, looking at the criminal justice system, is expected to stimulate a similar response from the Ministry of Justice when it is complete.
Meanwhile, Hope is making sure the Cabinet Office practises what it has been preaching on employer-supported volunteering schemes, and employees at all government departments might soon be given the opportunity to volunteer. "As we understand the situation, the Cabinet Office will act as a sort of test case for the rest of government," says Davis Smith.
Rosamund McCarthy, charity lawyer at Bates Wells & Braithwaite, is similarly enthusiastic about what has been achieved to improve the sector's ability to campaign in the past 12 months. She has been particularly impressed by the review and redrafting of the Charity Commission's CC9 guidance on political campaigning. "Although the campaigning advisory group didn't get everything it wanted, significant progress was made with CC9," she says.
But not everyone is so convinced the Government is making headway. Stephen Bubb, head of the charity chief executives body Acevo, argues that progress on transforming public services is "depressingly slow". Although the intentions of the OTS are still positive, Bubb says, there is a gaping chasm between rhetoric and reality and other government departments are still largely ignoring the role the sector could potentially play. He points out that the Ministry of Justice wants to transfer 10 per cent of services to private or third sector organisations, but so far only about 5 per cent of contracts have changed hands. "And quite a lot of that is transport and catering," he says. "This is going to be quite a long progress and we will continue to chafe at the bit."
Hammersley says there are particular problems with the Communities and Local Government department. "I would question whether the Third Sector Review is being significantly influential in the thinking of other departments," he says. "This was the case with the CLG when it was choosing its strategic partners and also with the Community Empowerment Fund, where there are concerns that only the largest organisations can participate."
The Directory of Social Change argues that the problems run deeper still. Jay Kennedy, policy officer at the DSC, says the Third Sector Review lacked enough new and concrete promises in the first place. "The review was more a synopsis of what was already going on than a vision of what could be achieved in the future," he argues. "It largely avoided making clear and defined promises and lacked sufficient detail about the outcomes that would be achieved and by when. How can we really measure its success?"
'THE SECTOR AT THE HEART OF SOCIETY'
The Third Sector Review was published by Gordon Brown in July 2007, accompanied by a pledge of £515m between 2008 and 2011 to put the third sector at the "heart of society". Carried out by the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, the review identified four key areas for the Government to focus on: boosting charities' ability to campaign; strengthening communities; transforming public services; and furthering social enterprise.
Among the main pledges were a national research centre, a skills strategy, a £50m local endowment match fund to secure future grants for local community groups, and "better mechanisms" for funding the sector, including the introduction of three-year contracts as standard. The Government also set aside £117m for youth volunteering and promised to make it easier for the sector to campaign, promote better use of the Compact and invest in new consultation techniques. It also pledged to improve government departments' understanding of social enterprise and investigate where social enterprises, charities and voluntary organisations could be used to deliver services. It also bolstered its commitment to the existing £30m Community Assets Fund, which supports the transfer of public buildings to the voluntary sector, through the promise of at least £10m of extra cash.
'A GOOD MINISTER, A TIGHT MAJORITY'
When Phil Hope was appointed Ed Miliband's successor as Minister for the Third Sector in 2007, he had a tough act to follow. Miliband was credited with turning the sector's relations with government around when he headed the newly formed Office of the Third Sector at the heart of government in the Cabinet Office. However, Hope, a former youth policy adviser for umbrella body the NCVO, has not disappointed.
"He has been an extremely good minister," says Stephen Bubb of Acevo. "There is a lot of respect for him in government and he is very good at working with other ministers."
Justin Davis Smith, chief executive of Volunteering England, says: "He is committed and knowledgeable, open and prepared to listen. It helps that he has been involved in volunteering schemes himself." But as Hope returns to Whitehall on Monday, he'll be met by an in-tray bulging with requests - and even words of warning - from the sector.
Hope says that implementing the Third Sector Review will take time. He points out that several cornerstone policies, such as the £130m Grassroots Grants scheme, are under way and proving popular. "Take-up has already been high - there's lots of interest," he says. However, other elements of the review, including the establishment of the third sector research centre, won't happen overnight: "It's going to take time for it to establish itself and do that work."
In the next six months, Hope intends to turn attention to the Compact, and is awaiting the result of a review by Sir Bert Massie, Commissioner for the Compact. But he says relations between central government departments and voluntary organisations are improving, and that many of the case studies of poor working produced by the Compact Advocacy Programme now have more to do with local authorities. Voluntary sector leaders who have long bemoaned the burden of administration might also be in luck. "I'm still interested in cutting red tape," he says.
But with a general election looming and opinion polls pointing to a landslide Tory victory, Rosamund McCarthy of Bates Wells & Braithwaite urges Hope to look to his legacy. He has a majority of just 1,517 votes in his constituency of Corby and Northants, and she points out that his days as minister could be numbered. But she says he could ensure progress continues into the next administration, particularly on charities' ability to campaign. McCarthy urges the Government to come up with creative and imaginative policies for the Comprehensive Spending Review for 2011-2014. "If they are clever, they might be able to tie the Tory government in," she says.
- Nathalie Thomas.