Opinion: Double, double? It's all froth and bubble

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

Double devolution is a wonderful phrase - so alliterative, so euphemistic and such a load of old nonsense that it's a wonder David Miliband, the minister for communities and local government, has the bare-faced gall to think his address to last week's NCVO annual conference would not bring a slow handclap followed by a hail of rotten tomatoes.

Sensing our common-sense scepticism at sleight-of-hand slogans, the spin was in with a vengeance, as government sources tugged our leash with the claim that 'new localism' is the next big idea, rather than the usual desperation of all politicians to 'connect' with voters. Thus, Miliband referred to charities in terms of the trust, co-operation and voluntary action that they generate - and he cannot.

Even the double in double devolution is double-speak. It is intended to stand for cascading power from government to councils and then to communities, but this regime's centralising instincts are as strong as its hostility to any alternative locus of power. So far this has taken in councils, health, education and the police, but charities offering serious opposition to state dogma should take care, in particular for their funding.

Having once worked at the NCVO, fresh-faced Miliband went back to his old school open day with all the talk but none of the understanding of the voluntary sector. Thus his details-lite speech seemed to suggest unelected citizen juries should decide when to break legally binding council contracts, ignored how the Compact's failings forced the appointment of a commissioner and assumed charities will happily join the Government in squeezing local democracy all but out of existence.

But Miliband's speech found at least one cheerleader in Dame Elisabeth Hoodless at CSV, who wants us to emulate the US, where 10 per cent of public service people power comes from committed citizens. His address gave her another chance to plug CSV's ideas for a Care Corps, Education Corps, Health Corps and Yetanother Corps, each pressing volunteers into areas where it is hard to quantify the risks they take and where they are in danger of undermining vital paid jobs carried out by fully trained professionals.

For real rather than new localism, meanwhile, perhaps Miliband should forsake slogans for action by, say, guaranteeing the future funding of the thousands of local Post Offices at risk. At least then there will be somewhere to put up notices announcing that the citizen jury is about to cancel the contract for the dustbins.

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