Outside Edge: One more thing ...

The third sector should not be leaned on by a government that is mainly interested in meeting its own policy targets, says Tash Shifrin.

It's 2005, and it's UK Year of the Volunteer. Not because any volunteering organisations, erm, volunteered the idea - but because Chancellor Gordon Brown said so, in last year's Budget speech.

Brown also pledged money for "national community service by young people" - a phrase horribly reminiscent of 1950s national service. Thankfully, he sent in the Russell Commission rather than the sergeant majors.

But there is something unsettling about the idea of volunteering at the behest of government or state. Brown's "call to service" somehow captures the Government's attitude to the voluntary sector in general.

It seems ministers regard volunteers, charities and the wider sector as cogs in the machinery carrying out their social and economic agenda. Volunteers are good for civil renewal. Charities are there to help "reform" public services. The voluntary sector's own impetus and the real motivations of members of the public are rated far less important.

Take charities minister Fiona Mactaggart trumpeting findings from the Home Office's citizenship survey, in a press release that did not fail to mention volunteers' contribution to the economy in its first sentence. "We are on course to exceed the Home Office's own target of raising volunteering by 5 per cent by 2006," she said.

But people had better be civic in line with government policy. One survey statistic never got a mention: the proportion of people taking part in demonstrations more than doubled between 2001 and 2003. The figures probably reflect the movement against the Iraq war - clearly the wrong sort of active citizenship.

Of course, formal volunteering is not usually political, let alone anti-government. But nor is it pro-government.

This has not stopped ministers trying to take the credit or co-opting the well intentioned efforts of volunteers to support their own agenda.

The public response to the tsunami disaster should prompt ministerial humility. The laggardly Government was shamed into upping its contribution. And volunteers came forward without any official urging.

Voluntary organisations are often grateful for government attention - not to mention its hard cash. But there's a difference between having the ear of ministers and being treated like a stage army, wheeled out when required.

Why let the Government set the agenda? The sector should seize the initiative with its own ideas - just as the public has done.

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