Third Voice: The Government is fudging the powers of trustees

Michael Brophy was chief executive of Charities Aid Foundation until 1982

The issue of independence for the kind of school trusts proposed in last October's education White Paper is likely to be high on the political agenda as Parliament returns this week.

It is also of utmost importance to the development of the third sector.

Will these trusts be governed by 'sort of' trustees or by genuine ones?

Trusteeship goes back centuries in English law and is a heavy responsibility, with draconian penalties for betrayal of trust. Trustees are answerable to no regulator but the law.

The dilemma for the Government is its wish to devolve responsibility for running schools (and hospital 'trusts') to trustees - parents and local people. But it also wishes to retain control. Chancellor Gordon Brown is concerned about school trusts becoming insolvent. In this event the Treasury would be obliged, by public outrage and social justice, to pay outstanding bills. Prime Minister Tony Blair wants to harness the enthusiasm of citizens to make schools work better. Make no mistake, this is a genuine ideological dilemma that must not be fudged. Either the schools are trusts and are run independently by trustees or they should remain within the public sector.

You may think the much-publicised overrun of budgets for the provision of healthcare by trusts proves the Chancellor's point that trustees are not to be trusted. This is not the case, because the explanation for deficits lies with interference from the centre - mandatory decisions about levels of pay, for example. These trustees are not genuinely independent.

The existing voluntary sector should be meeting and encouraging newly appointed school and hospital trustees. The NCVO and other bodies need to create space for them and welcome them on board. Indeed, the Compact could be used as the framework for developing appropriate guarantees of trust freedom with appropriate light-touch regulation akin to that of the Charity Commission - indeed, allied to it.

In my new book, Citizen Power (available from www.helpforalltrust.org), I argue for the renaissance of a civil society sector resourced by new flows of government and private social investment. For those of us in despair about modern politics, the nanny state and the proliferation of regulations, the fight to recapture schools and perhaps hospital 'trusts' is one we cannot lose.

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