Opinion: A partner in rhetoric - but not in reality

Peter Cardy

Do you remember this? 'Hopes are high for third Labour administration' read the Third Sector headline a year ago; last week's English local election results show the public doesn't think those hopes have been realised.

"Labour is back in power with a majority not so small that it is hamstrung, but not so large that it thinks it can get away with whatever authoritarian fantasy crosses its mind," wrote a fiercely optimistic commentator in 2005 (the editor of Third Sector, 11 May 2005). Instead we have a Government that has forced through some of the most repressive legislation since the Second World War, giving a small victory to the terrorists behind the London bombings.

Last year we hoped for a minister for the sector as capable and committed as the previous one. Fiona MacTaggart was a vocal advocate for the sector and a defender of its independence. If he hasn't been reshuffled yet, I think the new chap is called Goggins - I'm sure I should know more about what he has done for the sector.

We hoped for a new Charities Act as soon as possible after endless delays.

It would make no immediate difference to most traditional charities, but it would end the uncertainty surrounding the powers of the Charity Commission and enable this important body to develop in the context of greatly increased expectations from clients and the public alike. A year later, we are still waiting for what the Labour manifesto described as "the widely supported reforms in the Charities Bill".

With unprecedented spending on the NHS, a year ago it seemed that nobody could make a mess of things. After a health secretary for England who didn't listen to anyone, it turns out that listening to everyone is almost as bad, with a vastly expensive and redundant public consultation, a hasty decision on a high-profile cancer drug undermining drug licensing and local budgets, public dithering over the smoking ban and a reaction to deficits in which voluntary sector grants came close to the axe.

From the sector's viewpoint, the last issue is far worse than annoying the nurses. The narrow shave over Section 64 grants reveals that the manifesto rhetoric about service delivery on equal terms by the voluntary sector was precisely that - rhetoric. The Government remains in its heart unable to see the sector as a true partner. When the tempest rises, the voluntary bodies risk being jettisoned.

- Peter Cardy is chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support.

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