Editorial: A Department of Civil Society is a good idea

Stephen Cook, editor

By the time this edition of Third Sector appears, the phoney war should be over and the 'wash up' under way in Parliament in preparation for the campaign proper. Steel yourself for three-and-a-half weeks of what is likely to be fairly bruising stuff.

All the indications are that this will be a crude and visceral election, with subjects such as crime and asylum being dragged into it even more than in the past, and the voluntary sector unlikely to feature very highly.

There are important differences of approach and emphasis in the two main parties' policies on the sector, and sector organisations have expertise in many of the subjects that will feature in the election. But it's unlikely any of this will get much of an airing by national politicians once the balloon has gone up and the yah-boo becomes even more intense.

At the local level, Parliamentary candidates tend to be bombarded with material from charities and the voluntary sector, but are usually advised to bin it and get on with toeing the line and repeating the bread-and-butter stuff. But that's not to say there won't be opportunities here and there for charities and voluntary organisations to advance their causes, make some useful contacts and acquire some influence on the next crop of MPs.

Once the election is over, the sector will be able to get on with what it does best in Westminster - using its detailed knowledge to brief and advise legislators, assemble and advance coalitions, and virtually write, line by line, some of the legislation that will go through the next Parliament.

But another lurking question might feature in the election and afterwards - whether it is time to grasp the nettle and create a unit in Whitehall that brings together the different bits from different departments that deal with the voluntary and community sector, social renewal and social enterprise. At the moment, these functions, which ought to work more closely together, are divided between the Home Office, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department of Trade and Industry. There is a great deal of toing and froing and no one's quite sure who's ultimately in charge.

Reorganisations always carry the risk of diverting civil servants from actually getting on with the job, but isn't it time to act on ideas that have been around for some time and create a proper Department of Civil Society, with its own cabinet minister? In Labour's case, it's the logical consequence of much of their recent rhetoric.

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