Opinion: We are not just an instrument of policy

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support

Debra Allcock Tyler is quite right to warn about the voluntary sector appearing to let government set its agenda. I've said before in this column that there's no point in having a voluntary sector if it is not independent.

Delivering services on behalf of the statutory sector is not wrong and it's not new, but we spend too much of our time reacting to government priorities and too little setting our own.

Since the creation of the welfare state, one government after another has used the voluntary sector to help pursue its policy goals, usually wrapped in warm words about pluralism. In his 1999 speech to the NCVO, Tony Blair said: "In the past, the relationship between voluntary organisations and national and local government has been at best unequal, at worst oppressive." So that's sorted, then.

Sometimes senior civil servants let their guard down and talk about using the voluntary sector to deliver government priorities. On other occasions, the mask slips and it becomes clear that full cost recovery in palliative care, for example, is a mirage and that voluntary sector subsidies will just have to continue. We are indeed an instrument of policy - if we allow ourselves to be.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's possible to discern a consistent thread in the attitudes of government to the sector. Here are a few extracts from past speeches. The Prime Minister wrote: "Just as individual enterprise can enrich the economy of our country, so voluntary action enriches the whole social and moral fabric."

And at another time, the PM said: "The role of voluntary organisations is not just a useful adjunct to government services, but it is fundamental and irreplaceable. This is not just a ritual acknowledgement of the work of voluntary organisations. Nor is it a plea for unpaid assistance in hard-pressed public services. It is a recognition of the distinct, indispensable and socially invaluable role that the voluntary organisations now play in creating a better society."

And on another occasion: "However rich Britain becomes ... there's no way and no budget that could produce statutory services to meet the needs that as volunteers you now satisfy."

The question is, which Prime Minister and when? The first quote is from Edward Heath in 1971, the second is from Harold Wilson in 1975 and the third is from Margaret Thatcher in 1981. Plus ca change ...

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