General Election: Hustings 05 - What do the parties offer us?

The politicians give Third Sector their mini-manifestoes for the voluntary and community sector, opposite and over the page, while an analysis of them by academic expert Colin Rochester concludes that they could all do better.

Labour continues to set the agenda on the voluntary sector - as it has since Alun Michael developed party policy in the light of the Deakin Commission's report in 1996. Fiona MacTaggart promises more of the same: a Labour Government would invest an extra £90m for Futurebuilders, build on the Compact with the sector by giving it additional bite and accepting the need for full-cost recovery, bring back the Charities Bill in the new Parliament, promote charitable giving and encourage volunteering.

The Conservatives sign up to continuing financial support for the sector and full-cost recovery as part of a wider review of the funding relationship between government and voluntary agencies, and will also review the effectiveness of the ChangeUp and FutureBuilders programmes as well as "removing the gobbledegook" from local Compacts.

The Liberal Democrats support the Charities Bill but want to look at ways of strengthening the public interest test and their intention to create a "fiscal environment" that supports charities includes a review of the VAT burden.

So those looking for new directions in policy towards the voluntary and community sectors will not find them in these three statements; their content is highly predictable.

The main issue that continues to divide the parties, however, is the nature of the relationship between the state and the voluntary and community sector. The Conservative statement does not pull its punches: the "sector is being turned into an arm of government" and the "degree of government support is creating an undesirable dependency on government funds, leaving charities open to government interference".

The Liberal Democrats are also concerned. Charities, they say, "must remain free to determine their own priorities" and "government support ... should respect this independence".

Both opposition parties raise issues of accountability and regulation.

Whereas Labour places its trust in the Charities Bill to "provide for proportionate, independent and appropriate regulation", the Conservatives claim they "will complement the voluntary culture, rather than suffocate it with unnecessary bureaucracy, targets and obstacles to growth". It is the Liberal Democrats, however, who place the greatest emphasis on these issues. Although "regulation which promotes good governance and public accountability remains in the long-term interests of charities", they are concerned that the Charities Bill and other legislation might "inadvertently" add to the cumulative impact of misplaced bureaucracy, over-regulation and red tape on charities. And they are committed to "a comprehensive reform of company law" that would help those voluntary organisations that are companies limited by guarantee and assist the development of social enterprises.

The Conservative and Liberal Democrat statements are very much the product of their position as opposition parties. They highlight issues about the thrust of Government policy that concern many observers. In sounding the alarm, then, the Conservatives and, to a lesser extent, the Liberal Democrats, have done the sector a service.

However, the statements from the opposition parties lack any indication of the practical steps they would take to address these issues. They are high on rhetoric, on the need for cultural changes and on the need for review and reform, but the concrete measures they do put forward address no more than some specific aspects of their concerns - such as relieving the VAT burden (Liberal Democrats) and simplifying fund-seeking from central government departments (Conservatives).

Finally, they miss an opportunity to ask serious questions about the implementation of the Government's policy. The Liberal Democrats' concern to strengthen the public interest test and to clarify the role and independent status of the Charity Commission only hints at a critique of the Charities Bill, which has missed the opportunity to redefine the basis of charity law in a way that meets the needs of the 21st century and has failed to develop a convincing role and remit for the Charity Commission. The Conservatives also express doubts about the effectiveness of the Government's flagship Futurebuilders and ChangeUp programmes (why else do they want to review them?) without providing any grounds for those doubts.

Reasons to be fearful

In fact, there are good reasons for concern. As with other policy areas, the Government launched these new initiatives with a fanfare of trumpets but little or no clarity about how they were intended to meet their objectives.

Implementation has proceeded at a snail's pace and through a series of processes that lack transparency. Only the 'usual suspects' involved in the interminable discussions about how the aspirations of these programmes were to be translated into action seem to know what is going on.

The sense of a lack of strategic direction and leadership from government is underlined by the revolving door through which the ministers with responsibility for the sector come and go, and the constant reorganisation (or is it permanent revolution?) of the Active Communities Directorate. This year is the third in succession that voluntary organisations receiving 'strategic funding' from the Home Office have been informed that the review of this source of income has not yet been completed and have been given a stand-still grant for a further year. Ministers and civil servants who call regularly for voluntary sector organisations to get their acts together and improve their effectiveness should perhaps put their own house in order before mounting this particular soapbox again.

Despite strong reservations about the Government's ability to implement its programme and real concern about the perceived threat to the independence and distinctive character of the sector, the advantage on the basis of these three statements would go - with some misgivings - to Labour. However, few if any of us who are concerned for the future of voluntary action would make a decision on the issues covered here alone.

In the first place, this agenda takes its place alongside a series of counter-agendas that concern the voluntary sector. As well as being influenced by the way government behaves towards the sector as a whole, voluntary agencies are vitally interested in the policies that affect their causes and those for whose benefit they exist. Age Concern's primary engagement with the policy process, for example, is with those policies and actions that affect the wellbeing of older people.

Second, the statements generally reflect only one dimension of the voluntary sector's role in social policy - its role as the provider of public services.

Although this role has stolen most of the headlines, it has not been the only locus for a relationship between government and the sector. Another important policy current has been variously identified as civic or civil renewal, the strengthening of social capital, community involvement, citizenship and participation in local governance. This receives barely a mention in any of the three statements.

Third, the focus of all three is on only part of the voluntary and community sector, with a bias towards the minority of large, usually national, agencies that are funded by government. It is true that Jacqui Lait, for the Conservatives, draws attention to the heterogeneity of the sector and the large number of very small charities, but she can only offer the lame declaration that "the next Conservative Government will respond to the differing needs within the sector".

Finally, the statements do not pay enough attention to the local dimension of relationships between the voluntary sector and the state (although both the Labour and Conservative spokespeople mention it). The fact of the matter is that most voluntary action takes place and has an impact at local level. The relationship that matters most is with local authorities, which are a crucial source of funding for legions of voluntary and community sector organisations. Local government budgets are under pressure, which means councils are increasingly restricting their activities to those for which they have a statutory duty and attract ring-fenced funding.

As a result, voluntary organisations are finding it difficult or even impossible to continue much-needed activities.

The statements from the three main parties are unanimous in their view that the voluntary sector makes a vital contribution to our quality of life and to society, and that it is entirely appropriate for central government to promote and invest in voluntary action. This is welcome evidence of how far we have travelled towards genuine partnership between state and voluntary sector. But it will mean little if other areas of government policy do not develop so that councils are in a position to forge a similar relationship at local level. If we want a strong sector, our votes need to take account of a wider range of issues than those covered in these mini-manifestoes.

- Colin Rochester is director of the Centre for Non-profit and Voluntary Sector Management at Roehampton University and vice-chair of the Association for Research in the Voluntary and Community Sector. He has been involved with the voluntary sector as manager, trustee and academic for more than 35 years, and has been following government policy towards the sector for most of that time. Describing himself as a born and bred "natural Labour voter", he stood in local elections before growing increasingly disillusioned with the party and politics in general - he says his inclination is to spoil his ballot paper at this election.

LABOUR - Fiona MacTaggart MP

Our vision for the voluntary sector is based on a belief that the best way to solve social problems and meet aspirations is for government to work in partnership with citizens, enabling people to give their time, talent and money to support good causes. In a third term we will build on the immense efforts we have already made to strengthen and support the sector.

First, we will ensure that the Charities Bill is passed, to protect the concept of charity and provide for proportionate, independent and appropriate regulation.

Second, we will accelerate ChangeUp, with an extra £70m distributed by a sector-led agency to strengthen infrastructure, rectify the historic lack of investment and support charities, voluntary and community organisations and social enterprises, working together to end unnecessary duplication of effort.

Third, we will provide further support for volunteering. The £100m investment announced in the Budget to boost the number of young volunteers is just a start. We are also developing more opportunities for volunteers to add value to public services and to offer mentoring.

Fourth, we will give the Compact more impact through our proposals for 'Compact plus' with a champion. We will ensure that public authorities pay the full costs to voluntary bodies that are delivering public services, and we will develop longer-term and diverse funding arrangements, including asset transfers to local organisations and an extra £90m through Futurebuilders to provide the security the sector needs.

Fifth, as most voluntary action takes place at a local level, and as the involvement of the sector in local strategic partnerships has made a real difference in many places, we will protect voluntary organisations' ability to say what they think without fear of reprisal.

Finally, we will stay true to Labour's proud record of introducing and extending charitable tax relief to encourage donations and corporate social responsibility, which has helped to reverse the decline in giving in the 1990s. We have given the Charity Commission a new specific duty to promote philanthropy, and we will use this to help generate more giving.

We are driven by a genuine, long-standing commitment to the voluntary sector and by our belief in its ability to reach parts of society that government cannot reach alone. That is why a strong, vibrant and independent sector will remain an essential part of Labour's vision for a better society.

CONSERVATIVE - Jacqui Lait MP

The country's generous reaction to the Asian tsunami disaster is a vivid demonstration that the spirit of voluntarism is as great as ever. The challenge to governments is to balance the freedom of voluntary expression while ensuring its benefits are protected and used to their greatest effect.

We recognise that voluntary action is a vital expression of community spirit. Through it, people can voice and act on their own concerns independently of the state. By so doing, it stimulates the development of social capital and provides an immediate and enterprising response to social ills.

We also recognise that the voluntary sector is wide-ranging and diverse.

In 2003, there were 190,000 charities on the Charity Commission's register, with a total income of £32.5bn. Five hundred of these charities had incomes of more than £1m, and two-thirds of charities had an income of £10,000 or less. We will respond to the differing needs within the sector.

We will also encourage confidence in the sector by ensuring that it is able to define needs for government, rather than merely implementing social policies. We will complement the culture, rather than suffocate it with unnecessary bureaucracy.

The sector is being turned into an arm of government to deliver social policy; 37 per cent of charities' funding comes from it. While recognising that the state should provide funds to support voluntary action, we believe that this degree of support is creating an undesirable dependency, leaving charities open to interference.

We will encourage partnership rather than patronage. We will review the Government's funding arrangements with a view to encouraging longer-term contracts and establishing the principle of automatic full-cost recovery on contracts and automatic compensation for late payment. We will review progress to simplify and improve fund-seeking from government. We will review the effectiveness of Futurebuilders and ChangeUp to ensure that the sector gets the maximum possible benefit, and we will seek to turn their funds to endowments so they are free of government interference.

We are committed to restoring the Lottery to its original purpose to ensure that more funds will go to the sector. We will review the Compact arrangements with a view to removing the gobbledegook and building on good practice. We will seek a cultural change so that local authorities are encouraged to look to the sector automatically as an alternative source of delivery, rather than being a last resort.

LIBERAL DEMOCRAT - Malcolm Bruce MP

The Liberal Democrat priorities for charities and the voluntary sector are two-fold: to equip organisations with the freedom and means to develop the contribution they make, and to maintain public trust in them with a high level of accountability and transparency.

Importantly, the Liberal Democrats seek to protect charities' independence from government. Charities have an increasing role in the delivery of public services, but this is not an excuse for government to divert the aims and resources of charities to its own agenda. While ensuring an independent voice for charities politically, the Liberal Democrats also want to create a fiscal environment to support charities. So, for example, we support a review of the VAT burden on charities.

The Liberal Democrats have supported the draft Charities Bill and are happy generally with the proposals contained within it. We welcome the proposal to ensure that the charitable status of independent schools will be dependent on whether they actually do work that is commensurate with that status. We also intend to look at ways of strengthening the public interest test.

We are concerned, however, that legislative developments should not weigh charities down with unnecessary bureaucracy. We are all aware of the detrimental effect over-regulation and red tape has had on the private sector and competitiveness. Charities do not subsume bureaucratic burdens as well as the private sector, so we must be watchful against unnecessary centralised intrusion. The cumulative impact of a number of regulations could have a significant effect, particularly on smaller charities.

Accountability in the charity sector can be less obvious than in the private sector, so sensible and proportionate regulation to promote good governance and public accountability remains in the long-term interests of charities. The Liberal Democrats welcome a clear set of objectives and a statutory role for the Charity Commission, and would also like to see it made more independent of government.

The Liberal Democrats have campaigned consistently for comprehensive reform of company law, which would make setting up and running social enterprises simpler. The sector may be small but we believe the potential is there for these organisations to play a greater role in our communities.

This will require a cultural shift within government and local authorities so they view social enterprise as a viable alternative.

OTHER PARTIES

GREEN PARTY

The Green Party recognises the voluntary or third sector as vital to economic and social life. Consequently, we place voluntary work and the charity sector at the heart of many of our employment and economic policies.

In particular, Greens would:

- Provide a basic social wage for all citizens, a Citizen's Income, which would allow people to pursue vital voluntary work

- Provide proper stable funding to voluntary organisations in areas such as social welfare

- Create a statutory right to time off for voluntary work

- Make more space for employees to do voluntary work by ending the opt-out from the Working Time Directive

- Make changes to the law on charitable status, including phasing out charitable status for private schools

PLAID CYMRU

Plaid Cymru believes that a rich and diverse voluntary sector is essential for healthy community life. We also recognise the key role social enterprise can play in community regeneration and economic development.

But our main concern right now is to sort out the uncertainties from which Welsh charities and voluntary bodies suffer because the Westminster government is failing to acknowledge and work with the devolution settlement.

Responsibility for the sector is devolved to the National Assembly, but you wouldn't think so. Take the Year of the Volunteer. The Chancellor announced a UK campaign, but later decided the funding pot would apply only to England. So the Welsh sector is trying to find out if any cash is coming to Wales. And although the Russell Commission took evidence in Wales, there's nothing to show that it took on board Welsh issues.

Then there's partnership working, which has spawned multiple bodies, but no strategy to support volunteers or build capacity.

Plaid Cymru will support the sector's efforts to win adequate funding and will press the UK government to respect and take account of the specific conditions in which Welsh volunteers operate.

SNP

Thousands of people across Scotland give their precious time, energy and money to offer much-needed help and support to others. Their effort makes our country and communities much better places to live.

We will match the high standards set by our volunteers. The independence of the voluntary sector must be preserved and respected in its dealings with all levels of government, and should be fully included when considering the strategic delivery of services.

The SNP will transfer the bureaucracy budget of Social Inclusion Partnerships to front-line services, particularly voluntary organisations dealing with poverty. It will end challenge funding schemes for voluntary organisations, which waste thousands of pounds in preparing unsuccessful bids.

It will recognise that voluntary organisations require core funding and will consult on methods of funding distribution, including three-year core funding arrangements. It will review the taxation regime for voluntary organisations and exempt them from water charges.

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