Political News: Lait sets Tory agenda for sector

The tone of the Conservative Party's approach to the voluntary sector was set in the run-up to this week's conference in Bournemouth when its new spokeswoman on civil society, Jacqui Lait, appeared at a charities investment conference in London.

She didn't pull any punches as she compared the Government's handling of charities to a nationalisation attempt: "If this were the 1970s, I would say they were trying to nationalise the sector, but this is New Labour and it isn't the 1970s."

The Glasgow-born MP for Beckenham argues that the Government is using charities to deliver its own social agenda, setting the criteria for charities that are bidding for contracts to run public services. She also claims that much of the voluntary sector is naturally Conservative in its values.

The Tories are still developing specific policies for the sector that will be announced later this year. But, in the meantime, it is clear that they have appointed someone with plenty of attitude to present those policies when they come.

Lait was first elected to the House of Commons in 1992, one of only six women Tory MPs, and became the first woman to break into the male bastion of the Tory whips office. She lost her Hastings seat in the Labour landslide of 1997, but returned to Parliament in a by-election within the year.

A trustee of the National Missing Persons Helpline until 2002, Lait was shadow Scottish secretary under Iain Duncan Smith before being appointed to the shadow Home Office team under Michael Howard.

She told Third Sector that her plan is to set charities free. "If the Government is the paymaster, it can tell charities what it wants them to do," Lait said.

Instead, she said a Conservative government would stimulate the sector.

"The Government should respond to the charity sector, rather than the sector respond to the Government. That is the way we would develop policies."

Keen to build a closer relationship with the sector, Lait is quick to point out that the Conservative Party is a natural place for volunteers.

"The concept of volunteer work has long been the basis of the Conservative philosophy," she said. "Traditionally, charities have been independent and innovative, which fits in very well with our principles."

This similarity of values allows the party to pose as the guarantor of charities' independence. And Lait believes that the voluntary sector is increasingly becoming dependent on Government funding. She wants to encourage a culture of giving in the UK so charities feel more confident in their ability to raise their own money, but she promises this would not compromise the government funding already given them.

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