OPINION: Hot Issue - Do politicians take enough notice of the third sector?

The party conferences - the perfect opportunity for representatives of the voluntary sector to network with their peers, meet politicians and party delegates, and try to get their issues on the political agenda. But as the season gets into full swing, just how strong is the voice of charitable organisations?


They don't, because the voluntary sector is not organised or co-ordinated enough to force them to do that. There is simply not enough fear in the political system at the moment. The voluntary sector is very good at begging and pleading and cajoling. But it is not very good at frightening politicians.

There is a need for a co-ordinated campaign by the voluntary sector around a set of agreed issues. The only thing that makes a government or opposition party change its policies is fear of the consequences - in this case, that's losing votes or the political initiative. Unions have some power because the Government wants their money. The voluntary sector does not have money to give to the Government and nor should it. But what the voluntary sector should do is put the fear of God into the Government by mobilising some left wing opposition.


There is a great deal more attention paid by government to the voluntary sector than in the past, and that's good. The role of community and voluntary organisations has become increasingly central to New Labour's thinking - particularly in David Blunkett's agenda for civil renewal, but also in Gordon Brown's stress on voluntary service and civic engagement. The Active Community Unit in the Home Office has been expanded and reshaped.

I expect to see it play a significant role in the development of new policies for active citizenship, as well as fulfilling its traditional function as the central point of contact for the third sector in Whitehall. A key test in terms of influence is the promised charities legislation. There has been a wide-ranging debate on this legislation, but it now needs sorting so that organisations can move forward. A key task for political parties is to find new ways of connecting with local organisations, as well as the third sector nationally, to renew democratic engagement and enrich the wider political process. The health of our democracy depends on parties developing new forms of engaging with the wider community.


The American political consultant Stan Greenberg recently said that the Democrats 'own' the public sector and the Republicans 'own' the private sector, but the voluntary sector remains up for grabs. His comment applies equally on this side of the Atlantic. If we count warm words, visits to charity HQs and participation in fundraising activities as 'taking notice' then political parties do have charities firmly on their radar screen. Politicians know the value of having friends in the voluntary sector and are aware of the electoral appeal of being seen to be supportive of charitable endeavour.

If we are looking for a more meaningful relationship, then it becomes harder to answer in the affirmative. The 'added value' of our sector is understood at the level of policy development where the voice of the sector is heard at the table and prospects for a new charities bill are looking positive. But politicians have been stuck in a time warp and unaware of what the sector has to offer.


Voluntary organisations are being financially squeezed out of the conference season. Conferences are lucrative events for parties and the huge cost of having a presence does not make this an efficient lobbying opportunity for those with limited budgets. Some parties host their own conference events to provide voluntary sector representatives access to top party people, but more could be done. Non-conventional methods are fast becoming the most efficient way of making a point. This year the Children Are Unbeatable Alliance and NSPCC worked with Liberal Democrat MPs to secure a conference motion on law reform on the physical punishment of children - party policy could change as a result. The recent Green Paper Every Child Matters contained NSPCC proposals for reforming the child protection system. While this topic has been the subject of NSPCC fringes, it is clear that conference activities alone did not secure the inclusion of these recommendations - only long-term lobbying and a strong media profile could have done this. This is where the voluntary sector voice is still more likely to be heard.

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