The parties' views on the voluntary sector are crucial, but do they really differ?

Labour and Conservative policies for charities are strikingly similar, says Simon Hebditch

Simon Hebditch
Simon Hebditch

We are now well into the official general election campaign, and the prospects of many charities and voluntary organisations will be hanging in the balance. Much has been written about the likelihood of significant public spending cuts and all bets are off about state funding of voluntary action beyond March 2011.

So when the manifestos - which had not been released by the time this column was written - are published, it will be important to look critically at what the main parties are proposing for volunteering and charitable activity.

I expect they will laud the work of charities and volunteers, and it will probably be difficult to slip a cigarette paper between their positions. They want social enterprises to do more to meet social need and will declare their adherence to the values of community engagement.

David Cameron recently launched a paper on "big society", an idea that he contrasts with "big government". It deserves to be taken seriously because it chimes with a policy agenda for greater decentralisation of power, which resonates with much of the voluntary sector. Its principles may well be also shared by Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians.

All the parties argue that communities and the people should have a greater say in the decisions that affect their everyday lives - but, frankly, having a greater say is neither here nor there. If local communities are to have more control over their lives, then they have to take the decisions. And for that to happen, funding will have to follow.

So the principle of local decision-making is fine, but how do you deal with potential conflicts of interest between communities? How do you decentralise power and retain some notion of universal standards?

The Conservative paper also refers to employing 5,000 new community organisers. Apart from the fact that this would be only a drop in the ocean among the hundreds of thousands of charities and voluntary organisations, it looks as though such workers would be funded by transferring funds from Futurebuilders rather than raising new finance.

Reports in the national media suggest the Labour manifesto will contain a commitment to "compulsory volunteering" for some 16 to 25-year-olds as a contribution to building civic values. Again, this is not a new issue, but any compulsory scheme will undermine the basic values of volunteering. How can you have a compulsory volunteer? It just doesn't make sense.

Simon Hebditch is an independent consultant and former chief executive of Capacitybuilders

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