NEWSMAKER: The paymaster - John Healey, Economic Secretary, The Treasury

KIRSTEN DOWNER

There is something oddly familiar about John Healey, the newly appointed Economic Secretary to the Treasury. It is not until he is halfway through a speech, passionately outlining the scope for charities in public-service delivery at the Royal Overseas League's headquarters, that it falls into place. Healey looks and sounds like Rising Damp star Leonard Rossiter, only with much smoother edges. But then you would not expect someone with a background in politics, PR and charity campaigning, and who has previously served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor to be coarse.

In May this year, Healey took over the reins from Paul Boateng, the minister largely responsible for driving through the Treasury's cross-cutting review of the role of the voluntary sector in public service delivery. With a foot in both the third sector and politics, when Healey talks of the huge significance of the review, you believe him. But he's not sure that the sector quite recognises its implications.

"It may not be appreciated outside the sector, but there were only seven cross-cutting reviews in preparation for the Spending Review in July. They reflected the particular concerns of the Chancellor. This was not an across the board review led by a unit in the Home Office or the Department for Education and Skills. The framework for the futurebuilders (fund) is being done here.

The "here

is the Treasury, the ultimate seat of power in England in that its financial decisions determine whether any government policy initiatives succeed or fail.

The fact that the Treasury, renowned for its parsimony, has agreed to invest a hefty chunk of money in the sector's infrastructure through the £125 million futurebuilders fund shows the importance it places on the sector. "We're at a critical point in public policy and public services. You can't underestimate the significance of the cross cutting review,

he says.

Charities have largely replaced the role that used to be played by the trade unions, political parties and the church, says Healey. In many ways, he believes charities and the present government "largely share the same values". This means that in the future the Government and charities will work together "not just on the delivery of services but also the designing of policy and programmes".

The futurebuilders cash is aimed at charities involved in the delivery of key services in areas such as health, social care and crime. Although the public-service agenda has been led by the Treasury, the futurebuilders fund will be overseen and managed by the Active Community Unit. "We're doing the development work, but the sector has a strong influence on the shape,

he says.

Some voluntary-sector commentators are critical about how umbrella bodies and larger service providers dominate the co-ordinating committee, which is to "develop

the framework and criteria for futurebuilders. Such large service providers tend to rely on government contracts, rather than fundraised income, and the critics argue that there should be more fundraising charities involved in the consultation process.

Healey returns to this theme of accountability and transparency more than once. His tenure in the charity sector, he believes, gives him the authority to speak about its "idiosyncrasies

and "shortcomings

as well as its "strengths". It also seems clear that there will be strings attached to this loosening of the Treasury purse strings.

"I know about those weaknesses and if we're honest, they are still there,

he says. "The voluntary sector has to do more to demonstrate what is unique and special about it - what you can do that others can't."

So how can charities be made to improve their governance, transparency and accountability? Healey thinks this can come partly through the Charity Commission, which already has a policing role, and partly through contracts between local authorities, health boards and charities.

He suggests that more and better self-scrutiny is the way forward. But this won't be imposed, it's for the sector to take a lead on itself. Similarly, he doesn't believe in compelling local authorities to stick to the Compact, rather "embedding

the process in the way they commission services.

Small and black and minority ethnic groups should not be fearful of exclusion from the "priming

process initiated by the review. "If they have genuinely good ideas and are looking to innovate, what they will find is that the reference criteria and priorities that we set for the use of the futurebuilders (cash) will apply to them."

He believes charities need to learn to work together more effectively, not just on the delivery of services but on standing up collectively and representing the sector with one voice. This he predicts will start to happen over the next few years. "There will be a greater degree of collaboration and co-operation and, in some instances, mergers in the sector,

he says.

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