Miliband, Hope, Brennan... have I left anyone out?

The new third sector minister is not likely to last long, says Simon Hebditch

Simon Hebditch
Simon Hebditch

Cabinet reshuffles are a spectacle at the best of times as we all follow the varied fortunes of senior ministers and their ambitious deputies. This last theatrical performance was a tour de force, but one of the issues for me is how such changes affect the voluntary and community sector.

Yet again, the minister with responsibility for working with the third sector has been changed. This means that, yet again, voluntary sector organisations have to go through the process of briefing a new incumbent whose tenure in the post may be severely limited.

Not only does the sector have to wind itself up, but the civil servants in the Office of the Third Sector also have to produce yet another set of background papers for the new minister to absorb.

Of course, fresh energy and insight are always welcome, but not at the expense of reasonable continuity. A politician needs time to develop a growing understanding of the needs and aspirations of the sector, in order to then support the different ways in which voluntary organisations can complement government policies and initiatives.

Rapid change in personnel is not helpful, and we have seen a range of people occupy the position of third sector minister over the past three years. Let's see if I get this right - Paul Goggins, Ed Miliband, Phil Hope, Kevin Brennan and now Angela Smith. Have I left anybody out?'

Of course, governments need to shift ministers around from time to time, but surely it would be better for people to get stuck into a brief and thereby win the respect of the third sector for the contribution they are making.

Civil servants move with similar regularity, especially those in the fast stream. It has become normal for voluntary organisations to establish relationships with principal contacts in government departments, only to find they have soon disappeared to some other branch of Whitehall.

The next general election, which is less than a year away, will have major implications for the sector. Whoever triumphs, the economic and financial position of the country will mean that any new government will be looking to make cuts in public expenditure. Funds for voluntary and community organisations are always vulnerable in these situations.

So it is vital that the rest of 2009 is used to shore up the third sector's role and contribution to society with representatives of all the mainstream parties. Leaving it until 2010 will be too late.

Simon Hebditch is an independent consultant and former chief executive of Capacitybuilders

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