Opinion: The life and soul of the parties

Charities could not have enjoyed a warmer reception at this year's party conferences, with the three main political parties falling over themselves to stress that the third sector should play a major role in the delivery of public services.

But is there a difference between the parties in what they envisage the sector's contribution to public service delivery to be?

On the surface it's hard to spot. All three of them envisage an enhanced role for the voluntary sector in future. Whatever the outcome of the next General Election, charities and voluntary organisations can be certain of a place at the table.

But dig beneath the surface and differences do emerge. For Labour, the third sector's contribution is to augment that of the state, providing specialist help where public provision has traditionally been less effective and contesting the quality of state-run services by competing for contracts.

For the Conservatives, the voluntary sector offers an alternative means to providing services. The party's suspicion of big government encourages it to see the third sector as replacing, rather than supplementing, some state-run services.

This view was reflected in a statement issued by the Centre for Social Justice, Iain Duncan Smith's new think-tank, earlier this month. It published an opinion poll which showed that, when people were asked to name a good cause to which they would give money, most people favour donating to charity or giving money directly to the poor rather than handing over cash, presumably through taxes, to government.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, are in two minds. They agree with Labour's view that charities should not replace core public services, but they are also suspicious of big government. They stress the importance of a civil society in which community organisations are able to flourish.

So the charity and voluntary sector is everyone's new best friend. But what kind of environment is the third sector likely to face in coming years? We would do well to watch political developments closely.

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

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