Parties battle for sector's approval

Both main parties will seek to win support in 2007 by focusing on the third sector.

Voluntary organisations were hit last month by an extraordinary hailstorm of reports, action plans and speeches from the Government and the Conservatives, both eager to outline their visions for what is fast becoming every party's favourite sector.

During 2006, the likes of Acevo chief executive Stephen Bubb were predicting that the sector could find itself at the centre of a bidding war in the run-up to the next General Election. They were not wrong, if last month is anything to go by.

On Pre-Budget Report day the Government rolled out not one but three lengthy reports, all with references to the voluntary sector (Third Sector, 13 December 2006).

The most striking was the public service delivery action plan, which proposed a national training programme for public sector commissioners and pledges to improve contractual relationships. It was accompanied by an interim report on the Treasury's third sector review, which gave a taste of the themes likely to be covered in this year's Comprehensive Spending Review. There was also the Pre-Budget Report, heralding three-year contracts as the norm and a £30m community assets fund.

A mini public sector?

Barely a week later came a 104-page report from the voluntary sector sub-group of former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith's Social Justice Commission.

In it, Orlando Fraser, chairman of the sub-group and patron of prison reform charity the Longford Trust, called for a greater proportion of the government funding earmarked for tackling poverty to be distributed to the third sector, and for a "fair and proportionate" contractual and regulatory approach to voluntary organisations. He also warned that the trend of statutory and third sector relationships ran the risk of turning the sector into a "mini public sector".

Three days later, in a speech to the NCVO, Conservative Party leader David Cameron confirmed that a Conservative government would open up public services to alternative providers in the third and commercial sectors.

He also gave notice of his intention to develop policies that would stimulate private giving - something the Office of the Third Sector is also pursuing through the establishment of a £2.2m centre to research charitable giving in co-operation with three other partners.

But what does it all amount to, and are there significant differences between the two main parties?

"The similarities are much more striking than the differences," says Nick Aldridge, director of strategy at Acevo. He believes all that separates Labour and the Conservatives at the moment is a slight difference in language.

"For example, where Labour speaks of social exclusion, the Tories speak of poverty," he says.

In 2007, Acevo members will be looking for the Government to take action and implement the ideas it has been throwing around, Aldridge says. "We'll be looking for something more concrete and substantial from the Conservatives on how they are going to deliver their agenda," he adds. "We'll be looking for new ideas."

Pete Moorey, parliamentary manager at the NCVO, feels the same. "It's still too early to tell what the significant differences are," he says.

"It would be hard for most community and voluntary organisations to disagree with a lot of the broad themes that are coming out of both parties. They are quite platitudinous."

Moorey says both parties are currently engaged more in a war of words than of policies - for example, in November shadow charities minister Greg Clark attacked social exclusion minister Hilary Armstrong for seeing the third sector as a "junior partner" after she publicly accused Cameron of "stalking" voluntary organisations (Third Sector, 22 November 2006).

Is there a good side to this political squabbling? "There are benefits in that both parties are making this a political issue - it's for us to work out how we use them," says Moorey.

Andrew Phillips, the former Lib Dem peer and founder of the Citizens Foundation, agrees it's a good thing for the two main parties to devote so much time to the sector. But he warns that they should avoid stifling it with their overtures and policy documents.

"I have no doubt that intelligent engagement is not only desirable, but the duty of a sensible party," he says. "The real issue is what is appropriate and sensible, and what tips over into being a sort of choking embrace."

Both parties look set to continue 2007 in the same vein, with more reports and speeches already on the agenda. But feelings in the sector suggest they would do well to remember the old adage about 'quality over quantity'.

- See Letters, page 17.

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