Opinion: Do we need a Witchfinder-General?

The Conservatives recently launched their green paper on voluntary action in the 21st century - something that has provoked much debate in Third Sector. There were, I believe, 20 suggested policies to encourage the voluntary sector to be "a force for social progress", but the one that particularly caught my attention was their intention to give the Compact teeth.

But how is Sir Bert Massie, the new Commissioner for the Compact, going to tackle this issue? It appears that the NCVO, Acevo, Navca and, indeed, Bert himself, believe that the Compact needs to go through some changes. He was not specific, however, about what those changes should be, and we await his promised fuller statement.

The Compact is a decade old now, and I agree that changes are needed. But what are they going to be? Giving the Compact a legality of its own? Without doubt, in certain relationships the Compact is invisible and, where not, is ridden over roughshod. The local Compact is particularly vulnerable here. But what of the sector itself? Are we sufficiently aware of the Compact? Do we use it intelligently?

For many, the Compact can be bureaucratic and hard work. For me, it means collaboration. Should we work harder at making it work before rushing it to legislation? It's a difficult call, but we must be careful that we don't replace a system that is, admittedly, less than effective with a 'them-and-us' version that divides our sector from central and local government, potentially compromising collaboration. Bert would do well to remember the pragmatism he displayed when he was developing the Disability Discrimination Act, where he carefully evaluated the use of law in enforcing disabled people's civil rights. A balance has to be struck.

We could go the whole hog and establish enforcement teams of Compact Commission Puritans, scouring the nation for breaches of the Compact. We could even create yet another third sector panjandrum. How about Compact Witchfinder-General? It has a suitably menacing air about it, you must admit.

- John Knight is assistant director, policy and campaigns, at Leonard Cheshire Disability: jk.thirdsector@googlemail.com.

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