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Stephen Bubb
Published 15 September 2011

Charities can do the job if the PM pushes his policies.

It is party

conference season again and decision makers and the party loyal will be picking their way through canapés, debating and reflecting on party policies. But it has been a mixed ride for the third sector since the coalition government was formed: tough public sector cuts contrast with a government bent on creating a "big society". There may be gusto for reform, but now we must see practical action.

Illustration: Tilly, runningforcrayons.co.uk

Financially, this is an extremely tough time for the third sector. The scale of public sector cuts so far is unprecedented.

It is a sad fact that these cuts have disproportionately affected the voluntary sector and community groups. Combined with the rise in VAT and the end of transitional relief for gift aid, it is no surprise that charity leaders are anxious about the future of their organisations. And the effect of the cuts is expected to deepen in the coming year. The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) says the sector could lose more than £1bn this year -- rising to at least £3bn by the end of this parliament.

I understand the need to reduce the deficit is very real, but charity leaders are concerned about how the cuts will affect the sector, and society's most vulnerable.

A silver lining?
In contrast with this harsh outlook, there is significant enthusiasm for the third sector and what it can offer. From its inception, the coalition government has promoted its vision of a "big society". This is an important statement on power of citizens and communities. The government's plan to increase time and money given to charity shows that it recognises the sector's contribution and untapped potential.

The ACEVO's commission on the big society, chaired by Lord Rennard, agreed with this, but the commission also found that the vision has been poorly articulated and executed. So, it has recommended, significantly, that the prime minister now personally drives the big society agenda into policy across Whitehall.

A key part of the big society concept is reform of public services. The language of choice and competition in the delivery of public services is used often about the coalition's policy plans. Take health and social care, for example. The government wants patients to have greater choice but, of course, there cannot be choice without a diversity of providers. This means more delivery through charities and social enterprises. The government recently announced that eight healthcare service areas would operate an "any qualified provider" approach. Charities are already providing effective, efficient and cost-saving services in those areas. Combined with the proposed powers in the Health and Social Care Bill to increase the diversity of providers, there is real opportunity for the role of charities to grow.

More recently, the government published its open public services white paper, setting out its views for reform. The principles of the paper, particularly those of greater choice, are positive for the third sector and offer a chance for it to play a greater role and to deliver more citizen- and community-focused services. If the sector is able to seize this opportunity, its income could, instead, increase by £2bn by 2015.

Changing rules and cultures
The government has not decided how it can best implement the reforms set out in its white paper, some of which will require difficult political decisions. But policy reform is needed urgently to create a more level playing field for service providers -- such as changing the rules on public sector pensions and removing VAT barriers to public service provision. The coalition also needs to work with commissioners to change attitudes and cultures to ensure citizens and communities have real choice. Without a commitment across Whitehall and local government, the coalition will not be able to realise the full potential of its reforms, missing an opportunity for effective, user-centric services, accessible to all. Perhaps that would be something to consider while sipping the champagne.

Politics and power

Source: Sir Stephen Bubb's blog

Sir Stephen Bubb is chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations.

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