Political news: Opinion - Charities Bill is chance to gaininfluential role

Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations

I want to thank all the members of the Coalition for a Charities Act for helping to ensure the Charities Bill was included in the Queen's Speech last week.

Even though there has been a thorough cross-party and cross-house pre-legislative process, which appears to have ironed out many initial problems, the main barrier to it becoming an Act in 2005 remains the proximity of a General Election. During the Bill's passage through Parliament, its supporters must keep reminding critics of the legislation about the level of consensus that has arisen around the need for reforms to our 400-year-old charity law.

There has been much speculation recently about the exact date of the election. Just because charities cannot and should not be party political does not mean they do not play a vital role in elections. It is when policies are being formed and elections fought that voluntary sector campaigners can secure commitments from politicians that have the potential to improve people's lives. We must continue to set the political agenda in relation to our role in society, as we did with reform of charity law. As all good campaigners know, simply responding to government initiatives is not good enough.

Next year will be significant not only because of a likely General Election but also because the UK will hold the presidencies of both the EU and the G8. The NCVO is proposing that the Government uses this opportunity to bring these international institutions closer to the people. Formalised rules of civil dialogue between NGOs and the EU institutions are vital, and the UK's EU presidency must address this. Central to this should be robust international leadership by the UK Government and the promotion of a Compact-type agreement between EU institutions and EU-wide civil society.

Clearly, there will be a significant number of external political opportunities during 2005, and the sector will need to harness its considerable energy and resources to influence political processes at both national and international levels, and contribute to improvements on behalf of our beneficiaries, individuals and communities.

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