OPINION: We stand on our own two feet

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

Without wanting to sound as old as the hills, there are times when the years you have spent involved with the voluntary sector make you feel rather like a parent watching a child grow up. First there were the innocent school years: a multitude of largely amateur organisations working away with little thought that there was a world outside each charity's window.

Then came the teenage years of finding common interests and joining forces to demand, often menacingly, that the Government do this, that or the other. And now - well, I am occasionally taken aback at how mature, assured and effective the sector has become.

Take the past week. First the Government back-tracked on its plans to mess up Lottery funding by forcing through a shot-gun marriage between the Community Fund and New Opportunities Fund. It has agreed instead to a 12-week consultation with the third sector, a major climb-down since culture secretary Tessa Jowell had apparently been determined to have her way on the matter. And now the Home Office has announced that it is funding a mediation scheme to settle disputes between voluntary organisations and the various branches of government.

Both developments bespeak mutual respect, partnership and real influence at the heart of the machinery of state. They go beyond fine words. The outcome in both cases, of course, may not always be what the third sector wants. I suspect, for example, that Tessa Jowell will not easily abandon her plans and mediation is not always a cure-all, as the fire-fighters dispute has amply demonstrated. But the important thing is that a dialogue of equals is being undertaken.

I will never forget the day, two decades ago, when the charity I was then involved with opened its new building. There had been no government help and indeed constant obstruction from the NHS and the DHSS. Yet when the ribbon was cut, we felt obliged to allow some bland junior minister to say a few words and take the credit. Thank God the age of deference is over.

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