PERSPECTIVES: Lord Filkin, the minister in charge of charities

Lord Filkin, the minister in charge of charities

The Government is taking positive steps to work with the third sector so it can improve service delivery, says Lord Filkin, the minister in charge of charities.

When you are driving forward, make sure that you glance behind you." If that is not already a saying, it should be. It applies to most things, not least developing policy for active citizenship based on civil renewal and community participation.

The welfare state and the voluntary and community sector grew out of communities demanding recognition of their needs. Often it was the third sector that was in the vanguard, demanding and campaigning for change.

That tradition of civic responsibility and mutual support is evident in the number of voluntary and community organisations active today.

Civil and political society go hand in hand, engaging people not only for their own success and wellbeing, but building strong communities through powerful, confident and responsible individuals. Yet some people still feel disengaged from society and from the communities around them. They just cannot see the point. Yet it is the very people who cannot see the point who lose most by not engaging.

The challenge to government and voluntary and community organisations is to encourage and build on some of the individual commitment demonstrated in the recent Home Office Citizenship Survey to foster a healthier society and a truly participative democracy.

Blunkett's view

This is how the Home Secretary David Blunkett put it when we relaunched the Active Community Unit last year.

"I want to see a nation in which everyone - no matter what their age, race or social background - has a sense of belonging and a stake in society.

A nation in which individuals are empowered to have more control over their lives and have the opportunity to take part in decisions that shape their community.

"And the hallmark of a healthy community is a vibrant, thriving voluntary and community sector. Voluntary effort is key to building active communities and the Home Office's Active Community Unit is going to refocus, co-ordinate and streamline government policy with the voluntary and community sector. It will become the gateway to government, a voice at the heart of the Home Office that listens and responds to the needs of the community."

Revamping the unit was the lynchpin of a new relationship that the Government wants to develop with the sector. Behind that flowing rhetoric are some very practical policy developments.

The Treasury, with the Home Office, has just produced the cross-cutting review of the role of the voluntary and community sector in service delivery.

It signals a new way of thinking about the role and structure of government and the way we deliver public services. The cross-cutting review considered how central and local government can work with the third sector to deliver those services even more effectively. The sector rightly sees it as revolutionising the way the Government looks at charities and voluntary organisations.

I am not suggesting that all voluntary organisations become involved in service delivery. The sector can and should continue to campaign and raise issues with government, but some sections can also provide key services.

The sector has a lot going for it. It has specialist knowledge, skills and experience of working with often marginalised groups. Yet the only area where the sector has significantly expanded its public service contribution is in social housing, even though we know it is involved across many other areas of government activity.

I want a culture shift. I want to make the public sector more aware of the contribution that voluntary organisations can make. But I also want to see changes in the Government. The Active Community Unit will take the lead but the involvement and commitment of all government departments is fundamental to success. And that is why I, together with my Treasury colleague John Healey, will report every six months to a cabinet committee on the implementation of the cross-cutter.

Back to your roots

But voluntary and community organisations would do well to remind themselves of their roots. They should make sure that they are working to build communities and engaging with local people.

I want to mow down the state's bureaucratic barriers that the sector rightly finds so frustrating and get funds to local projects. But the sector needs to break down some of its own barriers that sometimes prevent it from fully engaging with the people, particularly in deprived communities, that it is trying to serve.

Communities benefit from individuals working from the inside. Workers and volunteers, on their own or in small outfits of two or three people, are carrying out crucial local work and developing innovative projects, such as setting up youth and drugs projects, credit unions and cultural activities. These first steps towards active citizenship are enormously important.

Wherever possible, organisations should be actively supporting people in the locality rather than seeing people parachuted in from outside.

If we encourage more community involvement, we can all live in safer and more fulfilling environments. That is how we can all put our hands on our hearts and say we are, as Third Sector's strapline says, working for a better world.

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