In the past 10 years, the sector has been living through a kind of golden age when its credibility has expanded and politicians have realised anew how important it is to a healthy society. Now that the chips are down, there is a risk that it will slip to the backs of ministers' minds as they struggle to deal with rising unemployment while an election approaches.
The projects mentioned by Alistair Darling so far have been long-term, labour-intensive enterprises such as rebuilding schools and insulating homes. These are essentially public sector initiatives that are welcome and could prevent much hardship - but they won't protect everyone. A key strength of the voluntary sector is that it helps to provide a safety net for the less fortunate, either through contracts for public services won in competition or in collaboration with the public and private sectors, or as part of independent voluntary action. It would be a mistake for the Government to lose sight of that in the coming months, not least in relation to the financing of local authorities. If council tax is frozen, as has been mooted, the kind of discretionary spending allocated to the voluntary sector will be among the first on the list of cuts that councils will make.
The Charity Commission's new register, complete with red lines round the records of charities that are late with their accounts, was greeted with dismay by the sample of late filers contacted by Third Sector (8 October, page 5). The commission says that most reactions it has received have been favourable, but it can't release them for data protection reasons. Our online straw poll (see Clicked, back page) suggests that readers are strongly in favour of the red lines.
But all of this is to miss the point somewhat, because the key criterion is not what charities think - it's what the public think. Their reaction hasn't been tested, but it's a fair bet they'll be strongly in favour of anything that improves the transparency and accountability of charities, boosts trust and confidence in them, and helps to justify their privileged tax status.
- See Letters and At Work, Fundraising, page 18.