The Liberal Democrat party conference in Birmingham this weekend marks the start of the political conference season, when many charities will jostle for influence and attempt to make their mark on policy.
But influencing the junior partner in the coalition government, on sector-wide issues at least, poses a challenge. The party has no minister in the Office for Civil Society, which sets much voluntary sector policy, and its conference papers make no mention of the government's big society agenda.
It is difficult to know where the party stands on key issues, such as public service reform, commissioning and the government's role in encouraging charitable giving and volunteering, because it has not appointed a spokesperson on the sector.
Clues can be found in Community Futures: Policies on the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering, a 38-page document published in March, now adopted as Liberal Democrat policy. Many of its proposals match the government's agenda: it supports impact measurement, deregulation, social banking and reform of the vetting and barring system. It also pledges that "in future we will require all legislative proposals to include a voluntary sector impact statement".
Baroness Liz Barker, who chaired the policy group that produced the report, says the group has not arranged any discussions of sector policy at the conference. Asked whether she thinks the report has influenced government policy, she says: "I don't know, really." She stresses that it is Liberal Democrat, not coalition government, policy.
One party member, who works for a charity and asks not to be named, says: "At a national level I don't think the Liberal Democrats have had a huge impact on the big society agenda. It feels like it has been driven by the Conservatives. It was always David Cameron's idea." Asked how optimistic he is that Barker's proposals will be implemented, he says: "Not very."
Peter Kyle, deputy chief executive of Acevo, says the Liberal Democrats, with their roots in local activism and emphasis on social policy, might seem like natural allies for the sector. "But it is difficult to know what the party's thinking is," he says. "If I wanted to have a conversation about a sector-wide issue, I wouldn't know who in the party to approach."
David McCullough, an account director at Insight Public Affairs and a former political adviser to the party, says it has not prioritised voluntary sector policy. "The big society is not one of the dividing lines in the coalition," he says. "The Liberal Democrats don't feel the need to intervene because they are broadly happy with it. They grumble about the big society packaging, but not about the policy direction."
There is one area, however, where the parties differ and charities might be wise to talk to Liberal Democrat figures: the party is more keen than Labour and the Conservatives that charities should be free to campaign and to criticise the government's policies.
"If charities are overwhelmingly fulfilling a public service delivery role, their capacity to campaign comes under pressure," Barker says. "This needs to be addressed by maintaining an expectation in government that charities will do this, and by enabling charities to raise resources other than through public sector contracts." She says this has been written into the party's policy, and is one area in which it might in future try to influence government policy.