Opinion: Is the conference season all it's cracked up to be?

Julia Neuberger, a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering

I have been at the Liberal Democrat party conference, where I spent a lot of time with the many voluntary bodies that make up the 'Health Hotel'- the health organisations, both statutory and voluntary, that hosted breakfasts and quiet briefings.

Until recently, I used to go to all three main party conferences because the King's Fund, of which I was chief executive, is a member of the Health Hotel. But is attending party conferences a good use of voluntary sector resources? Sometimes we would return having failed to have the off-the-record meetings with ministers or parliamentarians that justify our attendance. More often, however, we would run from fringe meeting to fringe meeting, from private briefing to private briefing, and return convinced we had influenced debate. Once we knew we had, because policy initiatives we had discussed appeared in public shortly afterwards.

But the cost was considerable, and not just in terms of time or the expense of hotel rooms or meals, which rise steeply for the party conferences.

Rather, it was the flatness, the exhaustion that set in afterwards. Despite so little now happening at them, there is a curious excitement - an air of expectancy - at party conferences. If they really are 'performances', the question arises whether party conferences really afford sufficient access to ministers and spokespeople. In my time, we tended to do our best business with the arm's-length bodies, the not-quite government organisations that came to the conferences but whose staff were not as frantic as the politicians, nor as focused on rushing about as people from the voluntary sector.

Most organisations will do their own calculations and decide whether three weeks out of the office is worth it, and many will reckon it is.

But that calculation needs to be undertaken formally. The Health Hotel has done well at party conferences because it has deliberately saved political spokespeople from duplicated meetings and given us a chance to speak off the record, with some 60 organisations now banding together.

The sector should consider why other 'subject' groupings have failed to copy that example, and ask itself whether three such exhausting weeks were worth it. Did we get access and conversations we could not otherwise have had? And did we make relationships we wouldn't normally have been able to make?

If the answer is yes, it was worth going. If not, the organisations should think again. But if they do go, they need to ensure their staff are properly looked after. Even after a couple of days of the first conference, many looked exhausted. When Christine Hancock was general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, she made her staff eat a proper breakfast and sat over them as they did so. There is never a chance for proper meals at party conferences, so voluntary sector chief executives would also do well to encourage the politicians to eat breakfast. It might just be the best way of getting their messages across.

AND WHILE WE'RE ON THE SUBJECT ...

- Fewer charities than in previous years had stands or held fringe meetings at last week's Labour conference. David Emerson, chief executive of the Association of Charitable Foundations, said he had decided not to attend this year's party conferences because they took up "too much time for a very limited return".

- Some charities that did attend held joint fringe meetings, several on the hot topic of public service delivery. For example, Marie Curie Cancer Care and the MS Society put on 'the voluntary sector: a real alternative to the NHS?'

- Similarly, the Shaw Trust's fringe was on 'public sector services and the third sector', and NCH held a meeting on which sector should be providing children's services. The Social Market Foundation and Rainer held a meeting on whether charities are tough enough to run prison and probation services.

- Observers at the Labour conference noted that one of the most assiduous speakers at fringe meetings was Ed Miliband, minister for the third sector. "I'm here in listening mode," he told more than one audience.

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