There can be no doubting the government’s commitment to the future
of the voluntary and community sector. The VCS is dead-centre of
its vision for public services. Initiatives such as the
Futurebuilders fund and the ChangeUp programme, financing the
development of the sector’s capacity and infrastructure, testify to
But the question that lurks at the back of this enterprise is to
what extent the government’s vision is the voluntary sector’s own.
Are public services really the be-all and end-all for the VCS as
Labour’s chief election strategist Alan Milburn and some shrill
voices in the Home Office regularly imply? Or is there more to
life? For many of those who see their charitable role as a vocation
as much as a career, both questions can be answered without
hesitation: the historic mission of the voluntary sector as an
advocate and campaigner for ordinary people takes it well beyond
the bounds of public services.
So there are clear reasons why the VCS has misgivings about the
signals emerging from Whitehall. As Stuart Etherington, chief
executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, put
it last week: “There is a growing sense of nervousness among
charities that the reform of public services is beginning to frame
the sector’s relationship with the state.” The remark was a little
disingenuous, considering the enthusiasm with which the NCVO has
embraced New Labour’s policy, but it did attempt to draw a line.
Significantly, it came as the Charity Commission was about to
announce arrangements for charities to be primary providers of
public services rather than play second-fiddle to the public
sector. In one sense this development is welcome because it will
encourage much-needed investment and broaden the range of options
open to the VCS. Both central and local government are guilty of
talking up the potential of the voluntary sector without finding
enough money for capacity-building or running costs.
But voluntary groups have another function. That is to play a part
in the civil life of communities, to strengthen and sustain them
with a variety of small-scale projects initiated locally by the
people who live there. If this is forgotten, the essence of the
voluntary sector will be lost.