The Labour government did not have clear aims for voluntary sector policy beyond a general goal of increasing investment, according to a group set up to review the party’s policies.
The party’s civil society policy review group, a panel of Labour MPs, peers, academics, charity chief executives and umbrella bodies, has been set up to scrutinise the party’s record on the voluntary sector when it was in power and to propose policy suggestions that could form the basis for its next manifesto.
A summary of the group’s meetings to date, seen by Third Sector, says the panel’s members "emphasised the lack of overall narrative in Labour’s approach to the sector".
"It was widely felt that the sector did not know what Labour was trying to achieve beyond the general aim of increasing investment, and that more specific aims needed to be outlined in order to produce targeted policy," it says.
The document says the panel’s members felt the party’s investment in voluntary sector infrastructure lacked clarity. "A result of this was that there was often an unnecessary overlap in the provision of some services, while other areas were under-resourced," it says.
The document praises the creation of the Office of the Third Sector under the Labour administration and says its role developed rapidly when Ed Miliband, now leader of the party, was the third sector minister.
It says policy strengths included passing the Charities Act 2006, dropping the Gift Aid threshold to zero, developing social bonds and developing the Social Investment Wholesale Bank, the precursor to Big Society Capital, established by the current government.
The document says, however, that this "successful partnership" fell back towards the end of the party’s period in government. "Several contributors expressed the view that there was considerable uncertainty as to the future relationship between Labour and the sector in the last few years in office and raised concerns over the slowing rate of progression," it says.
A section on Labour’s response to the big society agenda says: "To be an effective opposition, Labour must point out the risks involved beyond only criticising the big society brand. The opposition must decide what form and shape they want public services to take."
The document says the government’s big society agenda "has put the voluntary and community agenda at the centre of a very public political debate and this should be welcomed".
But it warns that some members of the panel "saw the big society brand as tainted and damaging to the sector as a result of poor communication and inextricable links to the government’s programme of cuts".
It also says: "The point was made that the government had got rid of much of the infrastructure supply to the voluntary sector due to its perceived links with the previous Labour government. This has created a lack of expertise and long-term experience within the sector."
A spokeswoman for shadow civil society minister Roberta Blackman-Woods said the document would not be published at the Labour Party conference next week because it was a summary of the group’s meetings so far rather than a set of policy proposals.
A spokesman for Tessa Jowell, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, said its contents would inform the debate on voluntary sector issues at the party conference.
It is not yet clear whether a debate about the sector will form part of the main conference agenda, but Labour’s response to the big society agenda will be discussed at a series of fringe events.
The policy review group is expected to continue to hold meetings during the next few year and produce a final report. A more detailed breakdown of the summary of its meetings to date is published here.