Editorial: On the crest of a wave or in the doldrums?

Stephen Cook, editor

Acevo's meeting with the Prime Minister last week was, by all accounts, a positive and upbeat affair that drew a commitment from Tony Blair to get involved - and stay involved - in the drive to make it easier for the voluntary sector to deliver public services.

Blair pledged to raise the issue in Cabinet, help tackle barriers such as the length of contracts and full cost recovery, and speak at a summit Acevo is planning for the summer. It's the strongest message since the election that the Government is serious about the Labour manifesto commitment to promoting the sector's contribution to public services and ensuring it can compete on a level playing field.

A few days before the Acevo delegation was summoned to Downing Street, the chief executive of the NCVO suggested to a voluntary sector audience that the Government sometimes acts like a ringmaster in a big tent, co-opting the campaigns that suit its purposes. One memorable example of this was the Make Poverty History event in Edinburgh last summer, when Gordon Brown popped up on the BBC news to say that the demo was going rather well. It was an Alice in Wonderland moment - when politicians are with you, always ask why.

A third ingredient to throw into the mix came this week, when the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres published research among its members showing that the move by government and local councils away from grants to contracts and service level agreements is causing serious funding problems for small community groups - the very groups, Bassac points out, that the Government says it wants to foster as part of the project to energise civil society.

So there are many things happening at once, some of which are apparently contradictory.

Parts of the sector might be on the crest of a wave while others are in the doldrums - and, as a result, many arguments are having to take place simultaneously.

It's widely accepted that the sector as a whole is probably getting the best ever deal from the Government at the moment. But the sector contains myriad different interests. Some may be on the path to metamorphosis into government agencies by another name, and the big charities can look after themselves. It's the small local groups - the key to real community revival - that remain the most fragile.

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