Editorial: Out of a debacle, new hope for the sector

Stephen Cook, editor

It turns out that John Prescott's inability to keep his trousers on has been a blessing in disguise for the voluntary sector. He's been retained in the Cabinet, presumably because he's the only one who can maintain the dialogue between Numbers 10 and 11. But the removal of his departmental responsibilities has paved the way to a reorganisation that could finally cut through some of the interdepartmental difficulties that have so often prevented real progress in advancing the new agenda for the voluntary sector.

With John Reid taking over as Home Secretary, it's a relief that responsibilities for the sector are being transferred out of the Home Office, where they've seemed increasingly like a disregarded and neglected appendage. The grand enforcer will be able to get on with the less delicate tasks of banging heads together and concentrating on the law and order, immigration and counter-terrorism functions that have always been that department's central concerns.

The active communities and civic renewal functions of the Home Office will go into the new Department for Communities and Local Government, the successor to Prescott's empire. The logic is that they will be under the same roof as the regeneration and neighbourhood renewal initiatives that run parallel with local government, and the results will be integrated policies and less to-ing and fro-ing across Whitehall.

But the best news is that the rest of the Home Office's sector functions will be transferred to a new unit in the Cabinet Office that will specialise in the affairs of the voluntary and community sector. It will be led by the formidable Hilary Armstrong, previously the Chief Whip, with the support of a Parliamentary Secretary who, one fervently hopes, will possess a bit of dynamism as well as a commitment to the sector. The Downing Street announcement said that Armstrong will "draw together the different parts of Whitehall that currently deal with voluntary and community sector organisations and social enterprises", and that the new office will bring greater coherence to the sector.

At last. It's been a long time coming, and it might not prove in practice to be as streamlined and dynamic as it appears on paper. But it goes a long way towards what the NCVO and others have been urging on the Government for some time. The irony is that it took a debacle to create the conditions for something so sensible finally to happen.

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