News Analysis: Quiet man raises the Tories' volume

Iain Duncan Smith has grabbed the sector's attention with his Breakdown Britain report.

Iain Duncan Smith
Iain Duncan Smith

Four years ago, in the dying days of Iain Duncan Smith's leadership, the Conservative Party ran an online consultation to find out what people thought of its 16 new proposals for the voluntary sector. Nineteen people responded.

Last week, Duncan Smith re-emerged with a fresh set of ideas for the voluntary sector. They were contained in a 670-page report called Breakdown Britain. This time, the report, which was written by the Social Justice Policy Group that Duncan Smith now chairs, has been chewed over by the national media and the voluntary sector alike. It would appear, this time, that the Tories' views on the not-for-profit sector actually matter.

Whether the proposals are adopted as Conservative policy is yet to be decided. But the interest they have generated in a sector that previously appeared to be largely indifferent to Tory ideas suggests the voluntary sector will become a more fiercely contested battleground in the run-up to the next General Election.

"The Tories have undergone substantial changes," says Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo. "Instead of their jam-making-and-raffle approach, they now see the voluntary sector as a key service deliverer."

Bubb told Duncan Smith at last week's launch that the report contained some "significant, detailed recommendations that we would like to see the Conservative Party take forward". He questioned the report's "moralising" tone, and said charities' increased role in delivering services should not be at the cost of cuts in public expenditure. Overall, however, he was impressed.

"There is now very little difference in the two parties' attitudes to the sector," he said afterwards. "Ten years ago, we would have been able to differentiate them. Now both see the third sector as central to economic development and social cohesion."

Breakthrough Britain certainly contains plenty of juicy morsels. For example, allowing charities to claim Gift Aid on a flat rate of 80 per cent of donations from individuals would boost almost every organisation's income and reduce bureaucracy. Cancer Research UK alone employs seven people on administering Gift Aid, the report says. The Social Justice Policy Group also suggests poverty charities could claim enhanced Gift Aid at double the normal rate.

Plans to strengthen the Compact, increase volunteering and reform the National Lottery are also likely to prove popular. But are they serious proposals or the kind of toffee- throwing gimmicks opposition parties indulge in when they don't have to pay for them?

"I think they are genuine," says Helen Donoghue, director of the Charity Tax Group. She says Duncan Smith's team has talked to her members several times to discover their views on issues such as Gift Aid, VAT and lifetime legacies. "I think they have thought it all through pretty thoroughly," she says.

Jonathan Lomax, senior consultant at public affairs consultancy AS Biss, describes the proposals as "genuinely innovative". He adds: "They bring together lots of ideas that have been floated by disparate groups for some time. But whether they actually become Conservative Party policy is another matter.

"David Cameron has been very careful to leave himself plenty of wriggle room as far as his policy commissions are concerned, and there is no guarantee Duncan Smith's ideas will make it into the Tory manifesto. But that shouldn't stop organisations that may support some of the recommendations from hammering down Greg Clark's door to ask him to act upon them."

Clark, the shadow charities minister, described the report, which is broken down into six chapters on family breakdown, economic dependency, educational failure, addiction, serious personal debt and the third sector, as "formidable".

He said: "David Cameron and I will go through the report in detail and will consult the sector to get its reaction before deciding whether to adopt it as Conservative policy."

He would not say which proposals were likely to be adopted. "Our responsibility is to think about it seriously and decide what ones to take forward," he said. But he acknowledged that "some aspects will have spending considerations". The Gift Aid proposal, for example, would put a hole in the Treasury's coffers.

The Labour Party has become so closely linked with Gift Aid that it is often forgotten that the Conservatives introduced it in 1990. They also started the National Lottery under John Major. Over the past 10 years, however, the voluntary sector has often appeared to be unchallenged territory for Labour. This report suggests that may be about to end.

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