There are so many things afoot in the voluntary sector at the moment, and they elicit so many contradictory responses, that it becomes increasingly difficult to know what to think.
For example, the Government asserts that the sector has never been so favoured and will soon have parity with the public and private sectors, while service-providing charities around the country say full cost recovery is a pipe dream and cast envious eyes on the terms of Capita's contracts. Then Debra Allcock Tyler of the Directory of Social Change says the sector is dancing to the Government's tune, while John Low of the RNID asserts the opposite is true and a letter reaches Third Sector from Sunderland saying she's spot on. Similarly, the secondment of an NCVO man to the Treasury is evidence to some that the sector's working at the heart of government, while others say this just shows who's really in charge. The Charities Bill is hailed as a piece of sensible reforming legislation with cross-party support, but is endlessly held up because of political fears that have never been tested. And so it goes on. If a Martian stepped out of a flying saucer and asked for a beginner's guide to the UK voluntary sector, you'd be tempted to hand him a copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Perhaps the best way of making sense of it all is to accept that life is just like that. The voluntary sector has long been protean, confusing and full of contradictions and disagreements that are, paradoxically, part of its strength. At the moment, the Government is trying to shore up this rather unstable structure with various bits of scaffolding and the occasional reinforced steel joist, and not everyone likes it. Many people suspect that the motive is made up of 20 per cent altruism and 80 per cent control and exploitation. Those who benefit from all these initiatives, or genuinely believe in them, talk up the process, while those who don't benefit and are sceptical do the opposite. But surely the thing for everyone to bear in mind all the time is that the voluntary sector should arrange itself in such a way as to make sure it will always be there, irrespective of the vagaries of politicians and governments. The touchstones when dealing with them should always be: does this compromise our independence and freedom of action? And where will we be if today's administration, which smiles so strongly on the voluntary sector, has a change of heart or is replaced tomorrow by an unsmiling one?