CONFERENCE SPECIAL: The Conservatives - Profile: Oliver Letwin. Proposing a fairer deal for the sector

A non-governmental volunteers' awards programme to recognise exceptional voluntary effort.

- Introduction of 'bureaucracy busters' to help start-up and other charities navigate and reform government bureaucracy

- A system of 'mission reward' to redirect the flow of public money and assets to community regeneration entrepreneurs.

The theme of this year's Conservative Party conference is giving everyone a "fair deal" - a fair deal for students, a fair deal for patients, a fair deal for victims of crime, and even a fair deal for victims of drug use.

But with the voluntary sector expected to chip in and contribute towards many of the public services required to create this euphoric new "fair Britain", does a fair deal for charities feature somewhere in the plan?

According to shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin, the answer is an emphatic yes. He insists that the party has gained a new lease of life and can become the party of the voluntary sector.

And if becoming the party of the voluntary sector means increasing the role that charities play in service delivery, the signs look positive.

After all, the Conservatives propose to approach the reform of public services in much the same way as they approached the economy while in government - by scaling down state involvement wherever possible and increasing the role of external players.

"The state has many very important tasks, but where these tasks can be fulfilled better by the private or third sector, we much prefer to see it done that way," says Letwin.

Although Letwin is the first to acknowledge that the Labour government has already achieved much by way of enhancing working relations between the state and charities, he also believes that the Conservatives can go a step further by taking a more long-term approach and giving charities of all sizes greater independence.

"The current government is in favour of the voluntary sector and has invested in it, and I don't think there is any question about that," he says. "But they have tailored their policies in terms of schemes, initiatives and objectives, so interaction with the voluntary sector tends to be very bureaucratic and top-down. As a result, the sector has been pushed into re-defining its work so that it matches with the government's latest schemes."

These problems are of particular concern to Letwin because the small, locally-based community groups and charities that he supports personally, such as the Joseph Weld Hospice in his home constituency of West Dorset, are among those least able to cope with the bureaucratic demands levied on them. They also blight the sector as a whole, according to Letwin, and need to be tackled in order to give charities a fair deal.

Greater freedoms

Letwin has several solutions building on the 16 proposals laid out in the party's Sixty Million Citizens green paper, launched in May. The document contains a raft of policies, but there is no single spokesman or woman for the voluntary sector in his shadow team.

First on his list is to give charities more freedom by removing the prescriptive target-led culture that often exists at the moment. This would involve the government setting long-term goals but leaving the sector free to decide how to achieve them.

"Some activities such as trying to fight a war or running a treasury require an orderly, controlled, bureaucratic structure, but others benefit much more from initiative and flexibility," he says. "Where the latter is the case, it is self-defeating to impose a plethora of targets and endless performance reviews."

Bound up with this is the issue of government funding. Letwin is committed to providing longer-term funding to give charities more stability and independence and to increase efficiency.

Long term contracts

"The voluntary sector wastes much time reapplying for funding and worrying about what will happen in two years' time," says Letwin. "My view is that we need to take a risk and commit substantial amounts of money to get long term projects up and running and reduce control from the top down."

While these proposals will please many in the voluntary sector, some will be disappointed by other aspects of the Conservatives' approach.

The party has shied away from the idea of reforming tax laws to reduce or abolish the £400m VAT bill that the sector faces each year, despite suggesting the idea in its 2001 election manifesto.

Letwin also remains committed to the plan to allow National Lottery players to decide which causes their money should go, as suggested in Sixty Million Citizens, despite widespread criticism from the sector (Third Sector 10 September).

Letwin once joked that the Conservative Party would need a miracle to win the next election, but doesn't any more. Just five months after his infamous off-the-cuff comment at a Police Federation conference in Blackpool, he maintains that his party is finally in the running once again.

"Even if we had been led by Christ we wouldn't have won the last election," he says. "But things have changed immeasurably since then, public trust in the government has declined dramatically and we are entering a much more volatile political scene."

The Conservative party might not be party of the voluntary sector just yet, but changes are afoot and he is sure that his party offers a real alternative for the sector.

"If the sector doesn't pay attention to what we are saying, it's missing an opportunity and may live to regret it," he warns.


Summary of policy proposals laid out in the green paper Sixty Million Citizens.

- Establishment of an Office of Civil Society to deliver the Sixty Million Citizens agenda

- Single application form for fund-seekers accessing Whitehall

- Website showing funding opportunities from Whitehall and public agencies

- Funding 'passports' for voluntary groups belonging to accredited umbrella organisations, or those that have already been approved by one Whitehall department

- Compensation for voluntary groups that receive very late payment from government

- Charity choice for National Lottery players

- Rights for community organisations to assume ownership of local government and other public assets as 'community asset trusts'.

- Option for people to give universal state benefits directly to good causes

- Greater use of matched funding arrangements - particularly to help poorer communities establish community endowments

- Introduction of an 'unfair competition test' to stop government usurping existing voluntary projects

- Fair treatment for faith-based organisations and the introduction of a right to a non-religious 'care option' for people in need

- Tax relief for donations to collection boxes and other spontaneous giving

- Payment of volunteer 'bounty' to charities addressing high priority social needs

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