The Labour MP Lisa Nandy has criticised the previous Labour government for treating the voluntary sector as a "third arm of the state".
Speaking at a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference today, organised by the umbrella bodies Acevo and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Nandy said she had worked for the charities Centrepoint and the Children’s Society before being elected as MP for Wigan in May 2010.
"The Labour government treated the third sector like a third arm of the state and I was troubled by that," she said. "I thought it was problematic. Delivering government services means you have to agree with the government about how those services should be run."
Nandy said charities’ biggest asset was their legitimacy in the eyes of the public. "The government loves charities because of that legitimacy, and charities must think carefully before they give it away," she said.
At the event, called Are charities being co-opted by the state or spending too much time campaigning? Nandy also said charities’ campaigning role was vital. "When you deliver services to the most vulnerable people, you absolutely have to speak up," she said. "Often nobody else will know what is happening to these people, so campaigning for them is absolutely essential to what you do."
"One thing that worries me about the way charities have taken on the role of the state and taken government funding is that, now that the funding is collapsing, charities are being pitted against each other to win the contracts that are available," she said. "At a time like this, charities need to be united."
Also at the event Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the disability charity Scope, said charities must be bolder at campaigning. "There are times when we are not as brave as we could be," he said. "Charities spend too much time tweaking the status quo and some tend to regard success as getting a place on a government committee. We shouldn’t just be amending proposals; we should be pushing forward radical alternatives."
He said charities that received public funds should still be willing to criticise central and local government. "Scope recently worked on some research that was critical of local authorities for cutting disability services," he said. "Some of those councils funded Scope. It was bold but it was the right thing to do."
Peter Kyle, deputy chief executive of Acevo, said that charities were often able to convince government ministers of their case against a particular policy but unable to offer an alternative. "Charities need to be clear about what they will do once they have won the argument," he said.