OPINION: Things have only got better

In a recent opinion piece for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the respected and thoughtful commentator Paul Barker echoed the concerns of many in the sector. He argued that philanthropy is becoming a covert arm of government, that charities are being hoodwinked into doing the work of government. As he put it, the "dance of responsibility" between the state and the sector continues, and the state is leading the dance.

There are many who fear that the sector's independence is under threat.

Yet it is difficult to gauge just how widespread these opinions are because you are much less likely to hear someone speak up in defence of the status quo. The sector seems to love doom and gloom, and naturally gravitates to the negative.

Yet, there are many who would not cast themselves as uncritical supporters of a government that has been part of shaping positive change in recent years thanks to a more productive working understanding and relationship between it and the sector. Probably this is for two reasons. Having been in opposition for many years, Labour MPs became reliant on the ability of those in the sector to shed light on contemporary problems. Many MPs also spent their formative years working in the sector, so they are inevitably better informed about how the sector works.

Unsurprisingly, the relationship between the Government and the voluntary sector has changed. Charities have become more important players in advising and shaping policy. The sector's funding needs, although still a long way from being met, are better understood. The sector is encouraged to take a role in improving public services.

These changes certainly benefit government. But it is wrong to argue that the gains have been all for the Government. The sector's voice is stronger, and its work more valued, than ever.

Those wary of voluntary organisations having any contact with government (or indeed business) overestimate the impact that the sector can have working alone. The voluntary sector isn't sacrificing its independence, it is increasing its ability to shape social change. Lisa Harker is chair of the Daycare Trust but writes in a personal capacity

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