Editorial: Is independence put under threat by state funding?

Stephen Cook

The sighs of relief were almost audible as the Charities Bill was included in the Queen's Speech last week. Perhaps we're fortunate the Government needed to maximise its caring and sharing credentials to soften a law and order agenda calculated to swing matters in its favour at the impending General Election.

We're now in limbo until the Bill is actually published and we find out how ministers plan to tackle the public benefit question - which is likely to bedevil its passage through Parliament as it did the scrutiny committee hearings. Some argue that this is less of an issue than it's cracked up to be, so we shall have to see what transpires.

In the meantime, various other government initiatives, which are arguably of greater practical significance to the voluntary sector than the Bill, are motoring along quietly in the background. They're nearly all related to the question of public service delivery, and election supremo Alan Milburn was set to tell an Acevo conference this week that he sees this process gathering pace.

This is the year that statutory funding of the voluntary sector has approached 40 per cent for the first time, and the nature of the relationship between the state and the voluntary sector is becoming ever more problematic.

How do you maintain an independent voice if the main part of your income comes from government? How do you keep the voluntary sector voluntary?

Perhaps we have to be more explicit about the fact that there are, in effect, two third sectors that share many characteristics but operate by different rules - the 'statutory voluntary sector', which mainly delivers public services, and the part of the sector that raises most of its own cash.

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