The Next Decade: Older, wiser

The third sector has gone through a transformation in the past 10 years. Emma Maier charts the changes.

Britpop was at its peak, there was outrage as alcopops hit the shelves, the web became a communication tool rather than something spiders spun and the world came crashing down when Robbie left Take That. As years go, 1995 was an exciting one: change was in the air.

In the voluntary sector, the time was also ripe for change. During the 80s and early 90s, the Government had enlisted the voluntary sector in the project of rolling back the frontiers of the state. It was expected to provide what had been public services. But its role was a subordinate one. "The belief of the then Government was that the voluntary sector didn't know how to run itself," says senior voluntary sector academic Professor Nicholas Deakin. "It thought we weren't competent because there was no bottom line and we didn't react to red ink."

The voluntary sector was a junior partner when it came to policy. "In the 80s, the Government would launch a policy to deal with unemployment, then tell us about it afterwards," says Deakin. Suggestions that the Government should consult voluntary organisations or even help improve the infrastructure of the sector fell on deaf ears.

It would be easy to suggest that this situation was peculiar to the Conservative Government, but it wasn't. The slogans of left and right have always carried the same message about the voluntary sector - we don't trust you. But change was afoot. In 1995, both the NCVO and the SCVO set up independent commissions into the future of the voluntary sector. They became known by the names of their chairs, Nicholas Deakin and Arnold Kemp respectively.

The Deakin Commission made 61 recommendations. These included a 'concordat' between central government and the voluntary sector to act as a code of best practice for relations between the two, a single centre for voluntary sector issues in Whitehall, a new definition of charity based on the concept of public benefit and increased support for voluntary organisations' infrastructure and core costs.

The Kemp report, published in 1997, also recommended longer-term funding and promotion of tax-efficient giving, and called for a Scottish Charity Registrar and a new charities unit in the Scottish Office. Neither study was an official government-sanctioned exercise - calls for a Royal Commission had been rejected - but together they proved to be the genesis of a decade of unprecedented political interest in the sector.

In Raising the Voltage, the Government's response to the Deakin report, Virginia Bottomley, then the minister responsible for relations with the voluntary sector, described the Deakin report as "important, thoughtful and considered". Soon afterwards, the Labour party released Building the Future Together, its own voluntary sector blueprint. But it was the Labour Party's 1997 election victory that really signalled a raft of developments for the sector. In 1998, the Government took up Deakin's suggestion of a 'concordat' and launched the Compact. In 1999, devolution paved the way for change in the Scottish voluntary sector. And in 2000, Chancellor Gordon Brown introduced the tax-efficient-giving Gift Aid scheme. An explosion of reviews and studies of the voluntary sector followed, performed by authorities ranging from the Scottish Parliament and Executive to the Treasury and the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit. The Conservative Party also published Sixty Million Citizens, setting out 16 proposals to help the voluntary sector.

A decade after the Deakin and Kemp Commissions first convened, many of their recommendations have been followed. After sustained charity campaigns, Charities Bills have been published in Scotland and in England and Wales, and a review is taking place in Northern Ireland. The Active Communities Unit has been established in the Home Office to look after voluntary sector affairs, and the Government has announced the £80m ChangeUp scheme, investing in voluntary sector infrastructure.

Perhaps even more significantly, there has been a sea change in the way the voluntary sector is viewed. The idea that it can bring something extra that the private and public sectors cannot has been accepted, and the political parties now clamour to improve relations with voluntary organisations. The sector's role in policy-making has shifted: it now advises government and helps shape policy.

The past decade has arguably been one of the most significant in recent history for the voluntary sector, and it all started with two independent reviews that came from within the sector itself. So is this the end of the road? Has the world that the voluntary sector was striving for - where there is real partnership between voluntary bodies and government, and where charities take a role in determining what the future holds - been achieved? "Of course not," says Deakin. "It does mark a new stage. But to paraphrase Churchill: 'It's not the beginning of the end; it's the end of the beginning.'"

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