Opinion: Hot issue - Is the sector dancing to the Government's tune?

Last week, Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change, warned that the sector is in danger of being "overwhelmed" by the Government's agenda; she criticised umbrella bodies for 'toeing the line'.

YES: CHRIS ZEALLEY, experienced charity trustee

Many charities are too reliant on government funding. It is the legal duty of trustees to exercise their judgement on how they do their work. If we are to go on calling charities by that name, we should not use the same word when we really mean a body that acts simply as a subcontractor for the execution of government policy. In that second case, charity 'trustees' are close to accepting responsibility for work in which their judgement plays almost no role. In doing so they are not in any meaningful sense exercising independent trustee judgement - they are making themselves almost impotent. When funding is cut off for reasons of political expediency, the trustees can hardly say "it wasn't me, guv" to the staff they lay off and the people they can no longer help.

Many charity trustees recognise this problem. Others dust it under the carpet. Fortunately there are still many truly independent charities, whose trustees do whatever they want to do in pursuance of their trust.

Are there two types of charity, then - one with effective trustees, the other without? For the sector in general and trustees in particular, this is a serious and fundamental question. It would be irresponsible to pretend the problem is not there.

NO: JOHN LOW, chief executive, RNID

If anything, it is the Government that is now dancing to ours. The recent interest in how the voluntary sector can contribute to reform of public services stems from years of the sector demonstrating that we can make a fundamental difference to people's lives.

Our closeness to the user and our ability to innovate and respond flexibly make us attractive partners in challenging outdated and remote public services that we have often been at the forefront of criticising.

The sector cannot afford to miss the golden opportunities the Treasury review and other government initiatives present to make fundamental changes to people's lives. For most of us, service provision is campaigning by another means and should be seen as such. Of course, we should set the terms of that engagement, focusing on the greatest need and obvious service failings. Retaining the vibrant dissatisfaction of campaigners and distinctive innovations in service delivery must be at our core.

But not to engage with government risks consigning charities to the sidelines, with little real influence for those who need it most. Is that really where the sector wants to be?

NO: CHRIS STALKER, head of campaigns and communications at NCVO

The voluntary sector prides itself on its independence from government and its ability to campaign and speak on behalf of those most in need. Indeed, the very first commitment of the Compact is to the right of the voluntary sector to campaign, to comment on and challenge government policy - irrespective of funding - and to determine and manage its own affairs.

As voluntary organisations, we are driven to achieve our missions and to provide for the people who use our services. Sometimes that mission coincides with government objectives, but we should not compromise our goals in order to fit in with this Government's agenda.

Absolute independence from government is a myth. The important thing is for us, as a sector, to manage our relationship with the state. We need to get better at articulating our independence, value ourselves as a sector and make sure we are open and accountable about our operations.

Then government will start to treat us as the equal partners we already know we are.

YES: GEORGE HEPBURN, chief executive, Community Foundation for Tyne & Wear and Northumberland

You only have to read David Miliband's excellent speech to the NCVO conference. Here's a minister with vision and drive saying that " the third sector thrives in partnership with the Government".

Miliband also wants the sector to continue "as advocates, campaigners, and protesters - the thorn in the side of Government and the establishment".

The danger is that these defining roles will be lost in the dash for government cash.

Up in the north east, Invest 2006 has been campaigning against the loss of about £50m in grant aid to community groups. We now hear, in a letter from Paul Goggins, that the Government disputes these figures. Officials point to new funding streams - such as Futurebuilders, Capacity Builders and probably even Bob the Builder - that will bridge this gap.

The trouble is that the new funding is predominantly to equip the voluntary sector to deliver public services. It will not support the community projects, grass-roots activity and local campaigns in which the sector is at its best. For this, groups will turn to independent funders, which is why Northern Rock Foundation's current policy review is absolutely timely.

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