Opinion: The hope hidden in the terror

Lisa Harker, chair of the Daycare Trust, but writes in a personal capacity

Last week, in an attempt to placate those critical of the Government's agenda for the next Parliament as being overly focused on terror, ministers were falling over themselves to point out that the Charities Bill was also included in the Queen's Speech. As the Home Office chose to put it, the Government's top priorities were "protection for the public and support for the voluntary and charitable sector".

In the short term, this is good news. It boosts the chances that the Charities Bill will be given adequate legislative time. And it sends a signal that modernising charity law and increasing the capacity of the voluntary sector are not side issues - something that all political parties ought to take note of.

But in the longer term, the question of how the Government really views the role of the sector remains. The Home Office was keen to stress that the Charities Bill was part of a programme of civil renewal. But civil renewal is given less prominence in the Government's own agenda than public service reform. And, increasingly, the voluntary sector seems to be viewed by government through a myopic public sector delivery lens.

Last week, the voluntary sector's contribution to the delivery of public services was again the topic of debate, this time at the first national conference organised by the new National Offender Management Service (NOMS). More than 200 voluntary sector organisations met with representatives of the Prison and Probation Services to hear how NOMS will work and discuss opportunities for partnership.

This is exactly the kind of area of public policy where the voluntary sector's contribution will be significant. But while an enhanced public sector delivery role will require lots of change - to build capacity and establish a level playing field with the public and private sectors - the public sector agenda must not be allowed to crowd out the sector's other valuable roles. The contribution voluntary organisations make in building a civil society and the ability to act as 'agitators' to bring about social change must also be encouraged.

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