Politics extra: Our vision for the voluntary sector

Writing for Third Sector, Conservative Party leader David Cameron argues that voluntary organisations are over-regulated, denied the conditions to compete fairly with other sectors and would benefit from 'Social Action Zones'.

One of the privileges of my job is that I constantly meet inspiring people who are really transforming the lives of millions in this country.

I think of Balsall Heath, in Birmingham, where volunteers man the local police station and people take it in turns to lead a 'walking bus' of children to and from school.

In my own county of Oxfordshire, I've seen the fantastic Michael Sobell Hospice working side by side with the local hospital to give dignity to the dying. And in North Tyneside, I met the people who run Re:generate, a social enterprise that creates community activists by going from door to door, listening to people's concerns and setting up businesses and projects to involve and employ them.

Voluntary sector solutions

It makes me ask: what can we do to roll the frontiers of our society even further forward? There is a genuine crisis in society, where a complex web of interconnected problems - drugs, homelessness, crime, family breakdown - traps too many people in deprivation.

I am quite clear that, in many cases, social enterprises and voluntary bodies have the right answers. And in the nationwide response to the Asian tsunami or the more localised examples above, there is an authentic flowering of kindness and care among people.

This is one reason why I support the third sector so strongly: it acts as a bridge between society's problems and people's desire to do something about them. There is another simple reason why I believe in the potential of the third sector: I trust people.

The desire to help is the spirit that the voluntary and charitable sector embodies, and we politicians must learn to trust them to act on that impulse without excessive central direction. Volunteers are the people who put in the time and give the support, and we need to give them more power and responsibility.

Hostile system

The problem today is that the opposite is true. The system seems to be institutionally hostile to voluntary bodies and community groups. Whereas government departments get three-year funding from the Treasury, Whitehall service contracts with voluntary bodies often last for a year or less.

Not only does this create a culture of uncertainty, it also hinders long-term planning. What's more, when applying for contracts in the public sector, private firms can recover their costs, but social enterprises can't. How can this be fair?

It is also unreasonable that after voluntary bodies have managed to jump through all the hoops of the Charity Commission and Companies House and finally been registered, they will suffer more inspection and monitoring than commercial companies - despite the fact there is no evidence of greater fraud or abuse in the voluntary sector.

The Government should be there to help, not hinder voluntary and social action. Tackling deprivation is a shared responsibility and we all need to recognise that we are in this together. It's vital that we try to determine where the boundaries of responsibility lie.

Social Action Zones

Governments have a responsibility to set the right framework in terms of law, tax and regulation. I have suggested, for example, that we should look at establishing Social Action Zones, which would attract funding for the voluntary sector and within which there would be fewer bureaucratic obstacles for community groups.

Just as we encouraged our business leaders to go to our inner cities and create jobs, wealth and opportunity in Enterprise Zones, we should now encourage voluntary sector leaders, whose solutions are working where the state is failing, to turn our neighbourhoods around in Social Action Zones.

Above all, there are three things that I think are vital for the future success of the third sector. We need more long-term thinking by giving projects the proper time to develop. We need to create a truly level playing field for the third sector to compete with public or commercial bodies for contracts. And the Government needs to free the third sector by trusting it to conduct its own affairs.

We have a shared responsibility for our shared future. By placing long-term thinking, fairness and trust at the heart of the relationship between the public and voluntary sectors, and harnessing the compassion and goodwill of people in this country, there is so much we can achieve together.

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