News analysis: What comes next for the sector?

The Prime Minister championed the role of charities at last week's Labour conference. Helen Warrell reports.

Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown

This year's Labour conference felt like the dawning of a new political era. The spirit of 1997 was in the air as Gordon Brown was hailed by rapturous delegates as their new leader. Addressing his party for the first time as Prime Minister, Brown promised to stand up to emerging threats and rise to new challenges.

Labour may have been in power for 10 years, but the defining ideal was of change, not least for the third sector. The Government that drew up the Compact, encouraged the youth volunteering movement and embraced social enterprise is now looking for more ways for the sector to contribute to British life.

The fevered anticipation of a General Election might present the best chance for the sector to make its mark on the Government's plans for the future. Ed Miliband, the former third sector minister, has been charged with coordinating the party's latest manifesto, and David Blunkett will head a working group to consult voluntary organisations about what they would like to see included.

Pete Moorey, parliamentary and campaigns officer at the NCVO, told Third Sector at last week's conference that the umbrella body's requests to Blunkett will focus on issues already brought up in the recent third sector review.

Keeping promises

"There was a lot of positive news in the review, but the challenge is making sure the big promises are kept, especially in other departments, and not just in the Cabinet Office," said Moorey.

"There are too many government departments ignoring the Compact, and we would like to see something in the manifesto that reiterates the Compact principles and values, such as mutual respect."

On the subject of the lottery, Moorey pointed out that the next government to be elected would be overseeing the diversion of money to the Olympics between 2009 and 2012 and that it would have to ensure there was no risk of any further funds being diverted.

He added that the NCVO would be pushing Labour to carry out the promised review of public benefit in 2009, reassess campaigning guidelines in the light of suggestions made by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC and commit to involving the sector in the design of public services.

Stephen Bubb, chief executive of umbrella body Acevo, said his organisation's main drive would be to ensure that the Compact had a statutory basis.

"At the moment, no one has to take the Compact seriously because there are no penalties if they don't," he said. "There's a lot of cynicism about the Compact - we need a seriously good commissioner and the Compact needs to have statutory backing."

He added that the sector should be making the most of the international interest there has been in the Compact and develop, with government, a leadership role so that its experiences of running public services could be copied abroad.

However, John Low, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation, challenged the idea that the sector should simply repeat its previous requests. "David Blunkett is looking for new ideas about the voluntary and community sector and what its role could be," he said. "There is some creativity yet to come into that process because there are still too many stereotypical ideas on what the voluntary sector is about."

He added: "There's got to be reality, not just rhetoric. Where's the beef? Why does it keep coming to nothing?"

The sector's recent disappointment in securing only two of the Department for Work and Pensions' 16 Pathways to Work contracts shows that charities are not the only organisations to have reformed their services and improved their relationships with government. In a competitive contracting environment, voluntary groups are being pitted against private companies that are more socially aware than ever.

Back in Bournemouth, the small charities lobbying third sector minister Phil Hope dealt only with their cause areas rather than identifying policy changes that could help them work more effectively. It is these community-based groups that know most about how the Government's policies for charities are being translated on the ground. These groups should be the first to test the Office of the Third Sector and tell ministers where they have been found lacking.

On the main stage, Gordon Brown's speech last week praised a voluntary sector that he said "can make all the difference". The question now is whether charities will continue to prove they can make that difference by making suggestions to the Government that are truly innovative and indicative of their real value.

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