Opinion: Beware of Brown and his plans for sector

Nick Cater, a consultant and writer, catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

So last week's Budget speech confirmed the story that we are in for a review of the charitable sector with Chancellor Gordon Brown in charge (Third Sector, 15 March). Yippee. Not.

Since New Labour adopted the strategy of continuous electioneering geared to the 24-hour news cycle, with an endless stream of initiatives, slogans, announcements and launches, change is our only constant.

It's great for spin doctors, management consultants, think tankers and other scam artists who are long gone when their big idea falls flat on its face, but bad news for those with real jobs to do and real people to help. As schools, hospitals, councils and most other bits of the public sector know well, good work is impossible with someone always jogging your elbow and shouting in your ear.

Of course, Brown realises that charities are not only an unprotesting, indeed eager source of cheap labour whose take-up of underfunded contracts undermines unions, councils and democracy. They can also flag up concerns, steer political agendas and polish a reputation at low cost and limited risk. And he has long been keen to use the Treasury and his annual budgets to intervene in the business of other departments of state, from Home Office to Foreign Office, from volunteering to Africa.

Bearing in mind Brown's past record, such as announcing last year's Year of the Volunteer with little consultation, at least he seems to have been in touch early with parts of the voluntary sector. But this review is hardly timely, with the Charities Bill not yet law, ChangeUp, Futurebuilders and hubs still getting into gear and various bits of government only slowly appreciating that when the Compact says full-cost recovery, it means full-cost recovery.

However, the fundamental purpose of the review is not to benefit charities but to integrate them into state planning so they serve government objectives.

The voluntary sector's cost and effectiveness will be fed into the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review, which will determine government financial strategies, and thus almost everything else, for 2008/11 - just when Brown will, having been electioneering constantly since 1997, fight his first election as Prime Minister.

Whitehall is said to be awash with initiatives that affect charity. The voluntary sector may soon discover that these should carry a government health warning: "A change is very definitely not as good as a rest."

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