OPINION: HOT ISSUE - Will the Active Community Unit really act as 'honest broker'?

As part of a major relaunch last week, the Active Community Unit, the section of the Home Office which deals with volunteering and the voluntary sector, is to reposition itself as a "brokerage service

between government and the voluntary sector, conveying charities' concerns to relevant government departments.

JULIA MIDDLETON, chief executive, Common Purpose

YES

Twelve years of running Common Purpose has shown me how much inspired leaders can accomplish when they set their mind to a task. In Helen Edwards we have a really impressive colleague from our sector who is to head the Active Community Unit. This is very good news and presents a real opportunity.

I am totally committed to backing Edwards, and that comes from someone who has kept a distance from the unit in the past.

There has certainly been a consensus for some time that the unit needed to change. And as it launches into a more active brokering role between government and the voluntary sector, it will be able to provide much-needed continuity beyond the latest government initiative.

Common Purpose would certainly support the unit in its new role.

CAMPBELL ROBB, director of public policy, NCVO

NO

It would be very difficult for a government department to be an honest broker when it must be fully accountable to ministers. However, the Active Community Unit could act as the Government's ambassador in the voluntary sector, while providing charities with a gateway to the state.

When the prime minister announced the launch of the unit at NCVO's annual conference in 1999, he described an organisation that would work "across government to co-ordinate the work of departments". But often we have witnessed a lack of joined up thinking which has hampered the role of the voluntary sector in building a better society. With a new head and with two major government reviews around the corner, the relaunch of the unit could not come at a more appropriate time. But to become a genuine gateway to government for the voluntary sector, the unit will require above all else more power to influence all departments. With this power it could become a true champion of the voluntary sector based on the principles of the Compact.

VICKY NASH, research fellow, Institute forPublic Policy Research

NO

Helen Edwards' new vision for the Active Community Unit is very welcome.

There was a sense that since 1999 the unit has been pulled in two different directions, with the Government's desire for high-profile volunteering initiatives ultimately dominating the third sector's simpler need for more sustainable funding.

I hope that if the unit is to become an "honest broker

we will see more emphasis on genuine partnership working and on increased support for the sector's infrastructure. I am concerned, however, that it is hard for a government unit to play such a role. There will always be a policy agenda driving the unit, and home secretary David Blunkett has a strong personal view of how the voluntary sector is to be supported.

At the very least, if the unit is to function successfully then it is essential that it devolves more funding decisions to the local and regional level. Edwards' own voluntary sector background and the increasing involvement of

secondees should, though, make the unit more receptive to the sector's needs.

ELISABETH HOODLESS, executive director, CSV

YES

The prospect of the unit acting as an "honest broker

between the third sector and government sounds promising so long as agencies retain their direct partnerships with departments.

CSV hopes the unit will raise the profile for voluntary agencies and champion the sector from inside the Government. The Department of Trade and Industry serves the private sector in many desirable ways by influencing policy and legislation before the consultation documents emerge, impacting directly on customs legislation and through reducing the red tape. It is setting up an advisory board of sector leaders and unions, which could provide a model for the unit to follow.

In particular, we hope the unit challenges the Treasury on audit and tax on the charitable sector, and speeds up the criminal record checking process. We also look forward to the unit investing in training and management development to replace the staff "poached

from the sector by government. It would also be of benefit to the sector if it was to simplify the government funding procedure and develop a single application form.

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