Thursday 27 November 2008

Whose third sector is it anyway?

Just got back from the annual NCVO Political Conference, where David Blunkett was launching his Fabian Freethinking paper on the third sector, published today.

So what to make of it all?

Firstly, hats off to Blunkett for hijacking the third sector’s major annual conference and using it as a Fabian launch event – one has to admire his gumption. Francis Maude, who joined him on the platform, acknowledged as much, saying ‘it is of course a great privilege to be involved in David Blunkett’s book launch…’

But - more significantly - it was useful to have Maude there, because his and Blunkett’s keynote speeches were quite instructive about the divisions between the parties on all this.

It wasn’t a partisan ding-dong by any means and was all very consensual and pleasant – especially on the changes wrought by recession, which will heighten the importance of volunteering and community (and therefore the third sector, though it was interesting to hear Maude state very clearly that ‘there are of course no good effects of a recession’, not wishing to fall into the Lansley trap), and mean money from charitable donations is likely to dry up.

But there were a few interesting points of division that are worth flagging up.

Mostly what was fascinating was the sharp difference in tone between Blunkett and Maude. Maude began and ended quite touchy-feely, but the meat of the piece fairly accurately represented what you might expect a Tory platform on the third sector to look like: we need a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ to tackle unprecedented levels of reoffending, fuelled by addiction, illiteracy and family breakdown; the state consistently fails to get those who have never worked, lone parents, and those on incapacity benefit back to work; charities should be paid by results; and the third sector is means of saving taxpayer money and delivering services more efficiently and effectively. Regardless of the merits or otherwise of these points, the thrust was clear – the third sector is first and foremost a tool for administering the remedy to ‘breakdown Britain.’ The lack of any surprises was surprising.

Blunkett was engaging and obviously takes this stuff very seriously. He also admitted and addressed some of the flaws in his paper – it contains ‘very few new ideas’, and the compulsion that might be necessary for some of his proposals to have teeth isn’t possible because ‘voluntary means voluntary’ – but what was striking was his stress on mutuality; the importance of community; and the strength to society that comes from volunteering. It was less about using the voluntary and community sector as a means of delivering a service and more about people giving their time to improve their lot and the lot of those around them. He also talked a fair amount about ‘strengthening the glue’ of society – and as someone remarked to me, first as Home Secretary he downgraded cannabis and now he’s strengthening the glue…

So Blunkett and Maude highlighted two different models of the third sector: community versus efficiency. As people are increasingly saying, after a longish period of wafer-thin wedge issues, the policy and philosophical differences between Labour and the Conservatives are reasserting themselves, and they were clearly on display here again.

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