Minister responds to readers' questions

The Government is determined to avoid preventative services delivered by charities being cut during the economic downturn, according to charities minister Kevin Brennan.

Brennan, who was answering a selection of questions submitted by Third Sector readers, said the "rapidly changing environment" meant the Government might need to "refine its priorities". "But I absolutely agree that it would be a big mistake to neglect preventative services," he said.

He also promised to champion the Compact – the agreement that sets out how charities and public bodies should behave towards one another – and environmental sustainability across government. The chosen questions and Brennan's answers are below.

As money becomes tight at both local and national levels and pressure increases to keep funding stable for crisis interventions, how will you ensure that funding continues to flow to voluntary sector organisations providing valuable preventative services?

– Jo Hobbs, national development manager, Chance UK


"Like you, Jo, I want to ensure that the people who rely on third sector services don't lose out. In the current economic context, the Government is more determined than ever to support the third sector through the upcoming months and years.

"This rapidly changing environment does mean that in some cases government may need to refine its priorities to react to changing needs, but I absolutely agree that it would be a big mistake to neglect preventative services.

"The empowerment of individual citizens and community groups to shape and inform public services is at the heart of the next phase of what the Government is doing to reform public services. This means that people will have a real choice and greater say about the services they receive.

"The third sector has huge potential to be directly involved in the achievement of these reforms. This is why we've appointed Anne McGuire MP as our adviser on third sector innovation. She will support me in promoting the third sector as a vehicle for citizens and commissioners to work together to design and deliver more personalised public services.

"I will drive forward work to promote real partnership between the third and public sectors, including making stable three-year funding the norm. I will also help the sector demonstrate the value of its work to public services and other potential investors through the Third Sector Research Centre and other work to develop the measurement of social return on investment."

Last year, the Department for Children, Schools and Families was the second worst of the government departments in terms of compliance with the Compact. Despite an excellent Department for Education and Skills strategy for working with the voluntary and community sector three years ago, it seems that few of DCSF's agencies are even aware of the strategy, the Compact or the Treasury guidance to funders of the sector. This has caused direct financial loss to my organisation, and others. How does the minister intend to address this lack of adherence to government policy in government agencies?

– Professor Margaret Talbot, chief executive, Association for Physical Education

"It is very encouraging that now virtually every department has a third strategy policy – including the DCSF. But the problem you raise, Margaret, is not confined to the agencies of one department. I think that we have a lot to do to change the culture at every level of government and I see improving the Compact as the right way forward to achieve that.

"Sir Bert Massie, the Commissioner for the Compact, has been reviewing the Compact and will shortly give me his proposals on making it fit for today's challenges. This may include looking at powers for the commission and a version of the Compact that is more accessible to agencies further away from the centre of government. I will expect the third sector champion in each department to communicate these changes to all their agencies and we will continue to monitor performance and champion the sector within government where public bodies fall short.

"As part of this, the Office of the Third Sector has been surveying every government department to monitor progress on agreeing longer-term funding arrangements with third sector organisations, and we'll be reporting on progress at this year's Compact annual review meeting on 2 December. I know that the OTS will be looking at the performance of each department on three-year funding and I'm confident that we will see year-on-year progress across government departments. Evidence from their agencies will also be included from 2009."

The Every Action Counts partners welcome your recent commitment at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs third sector strategy launch to work to embed sustainable development in the work of the sector and to support the third sector declaration on climate change. However, the Office of the Third Sector business plan for 2008/09 and the work of its delivery partners give little indication of action on this agenda. Are you able to give more detail on how the OTS intends to support development of environmental leadership in the third sector?

– Mark Walton, head of programme, Every Action Counts

"Thanks, Mark, for your welcome of my commitment at the launch. I think Defra has a very good new third sector strategy and I will be working hard with that department and the new Department for Energy and Climate Change on a joint programme of activities to embed sustainability across government policy.

"As part of this, the OTS recently held an all-staff workshop on sustainability, opened by Jonathan Porritt, chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, to help officials incorporate issues into policy development. The workshop was also attended by our delivery partners – Futurebuilders, Capacitybuilders, the Community Development Foundation and the Big Lottery Fund – which shared some of the research they have already been doing on implementing environmental standards.

"I am also supporting our strategic partners, coordinated by umbrella body Bassac, in developing a sector-led approach to environmental improvement. As part of that support, I will be co-chairing, along with Huw Irranca-Davies of Defra, a third sector advisory body examining examples of good practice."

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