Newsmaker: The new guy - Paul Goggins, Minister for the voluntary and community sector

Stephen Cook

It's one week after the election and Paul Goggins is sitting in his office in Marsham Street explaining his new Home Office portfolio, which includes the voluntary and community sector, community cohesion and faith and race equality.

He says he'll be working with minister of state Hazel Blears on issues such as serious and organised crime and drugs policy, but will also have responsibility for making sure that the sector fulfils its potential.

"It's important that this is linked to the agenda Hazel and I are following because we see the issue of respect, which you've heard about, and the need for safe and strong communities as ones in which the voluntary sector plays a key role," he says.

Goggins, who was prisons minister before the election, has a total of 14 subjects in his brief - his predecessor, Fiona Mactaggart, had only the voluntary sector, community and race. Does this mean a demotion for the sector in ministerial eyes?

"People will judge by results, of course," he says. "I want to make it clear that the sector is a key responsibility, but one that is linked to other aspects of the work Hazel and I do in a way that will enhance the work of the sector.

"There's absolutely no question that, in terms of policy, resources and recognition, this Government now accords greater status to the voluntary sector than has ever been given before. Part of my responsibility is that this remains the case and moves on."

He quotes the part of Labour's election manifesto that said the voluntary sector should be allowed to compete on equal terms with the private sector for government contracts, and refers to a bar chart showing how much Home Office spending on the sector has increased under Labour.

He then returns - for a third time - to the point about the opportunity for the sector being firmly connected to the wider Home Office agenda of crime reduction and strong communities. So where does he position the balance between the sector following a government agenda, including service delivery, and maintaining an independent voice?

He says it's fundamentally important that the sector remains independent and innovative, and that it retains the ability to speak freely.

"Nobody can force organisations to bid for things or get them to do things they don't want to," he says. "It's part of the programme of initiatives such as Futurebuilders that the sector builds up its own sustainable structures, so it isn't dependent on grants and is able to have a solid base of its own."

Nevertheless, he thinks there will increasingly be a shared agenda.

"Perhaps the sector needs to speak with a more coherent voice than has been the case in the past," he adds.

Conversely, he accepts the need to align Home Office voluntary sector work with that of other departments, such as the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department for Education and Skills. Discussions, are under way about creating a proper co-ordinating mechanism to work across Whitehall.

"We're determined to do that, but we're still looking at the nuts and bolts," he says. "It will be more than just an ad hoc arrangement, but we don't know the precise nature of it yet."

His vision, he says, is based on his experiences in the sector itself and in community politics - on the realisation that government has to act on big issues such as poverty, but cannot do it all; and that people with disadvantages, once organised, have much to give.

"We need policies that make a difference and recognition for what can be built from the ground up," he concludes. "My job is to make sure the two efforts match and that one makes the best of the other."

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