OPINION: Belle of the party conferences

LISA HARKER, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

Never has the sector felt quite so popular. Has it ever featured so heavily in the conference speeches of both main political parties?

Suddenly it feels good to be neither public nor private but just perfect.

There is no doubt that the sector should make the most of what is on offer. Both Labour and the Conservatives have spotted the sector's potential to help transform public services - a rare political consensus. We may look back on 2002 as a significant moment in the sector's history.

It's nice to feel wanted. But the voluntary sector shouldn't be duped into a role it feels unable or unwilling to perform. With the ball firmly in the sector's court, there's an urgent need for greater clarity about how it wants to work with public services, not least because the roles on offer from the main political parties are different.

In his conference speech, Tony Blair emphasised the Government's commitment to ending a "one size fits all

mass production public service through partnerships between public, private and voluntary sectors. The key challenges remain the need to build capacity, ensure that true costs are met and, ultimately, gain local government's commitment to the Compact. Overcoming these problems won't be easy, but on offer is a more level playing field working with public services.

Iain Duncan Smith wisely spotted the sector's jitters about the potential delay in charity law reform and has lent his support to a charity bill that will bring together existing proposals. But the end game envisaged by the Conservatives is different. They believe that the sector has the potential to take over some aspects of public services under the control of government as a potential alternative to the public sector, rather than a potential partner.

Two different scenarios for the role of the sector in delivering public services, both recognising the distinct and independent contribution the sector could make. Which would best harness the sector's contribution to be of most benefit to society? That's something we should not leave to politicians to decide.

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