Compact Week: Against ... Peter Cardy - Compact may jeopardise ourindependence

Beveridge's lesser-known third report Voluntary Action in 1948 looked at the sweep of philanthropy, mutual aid and volunteering. He hoped it would respond to needs not met by the welfare state proposed in his earlier reports, and would differentiate the state's role from what we now call the voluntary sector. He wrote: "Here is a limitless field for voluntary action, assisted so far as is necessary, but not controlled by the power of the State."

All parties when in opposition speak soft words to the sector, but once elected, governments of all colours cannot resist trying to co-opt voluntary bodies to their project. A conspicuous example came during the steep rise in unemployment of the early 1980s and the urban riots that followed.

A succession of ministers left their brains behind as they went to cities to promise regeneration and jobs - and asked the voluntary bodies to undertake this formidable (and impossible) task for them.

The current rhetoric of the 'added value' the voluntary sector brings to public services means, in its extreme form, that voluntary organisations are indistinguishable from any other contractor providing statutory services at a price. And there is a whiff of co-option into the Government's projects in the air, with Alan Milburn telling us that we need to clean up our act on governance.

Where the Compact works, it helps to ensure that voluntary bodies don't simply raise funds to subsidise services that state organs should be running.

So far, so good. But the risk is that, as government priorities change, following the trend of funding will lead to distortions in priorities.

Governments seek to control their environment and tinkering with voluntary organisations is just another way of doing so. The relationship is always unequal: government makes the laws, raises the taxes, and spends the money.

Too much time at the table of government can lead to some unhealthy delusions.

The Compact is not intrinsically harmful; the risk is in what it signifies and where it will lead. Voluntary bodies in the UK are free to be contentious, complementary, critical, to innovate and to make mistakes: they should remain so. Beveridge had the right idea.

Peter Cardy is chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief.

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