What might a Conservative government have in store for the VCS?

There has undoubtedly been a greater interest in the VCS from the Conservative party in recent years. This has been influenced by Cameron’s vision of Compassionate Conservatism and the work of the Social Justice Policy Group including their reports ‘Breakdown Britain’ and ‘Breakthrough Britain’. They have developed thinking on issues recently seen as the remit of the left such as social breakdown and justice, poverty and the environment; issues that are often a key concern for large parts of the sector.

However, there has been little in the way of formal policy statements until last week when they released their Green Paper ‘A stronger society; Voluntary action in the 21st Century’ which set out their priorities for the sector. Some of the key proposals it includes are:

  • Create an Office for Civil Society to replace the Office of the Third Sector within Whitehall and a Civil Society Select Committee to provide democratic scrutiny in Westminster;
  • Increase volunteering through direct support for grassroots organisations, establish a social norm around volunteering and reduce the burden for regulation on volunteers;
  • Reduce the funding bureaucracy so organisations can bypass repetitive grant applications and only use contracts instead of grants where there is a clear justification;
  • Support for longer term, strategic funding, and for contracts which focus on the desired outcome rather than the process – emphasising social value as well as economic value;
  • Create a network of Social Enterprise Zones to provide incentives for social investment in deprived communities;
  • Explore the enforcement of a strengthened version of the Compact.

The Green Paper sets out the broad policy agenda which the Conservatives are consulting on over the next year. It remains to be seen which of these proposals will become concrete Conservative policy, but there is still an opportunity for the sector to shape the Conservative agenda. NCVO has produced a briefing (PDF 34KB) on the Paper outlining some of the proposals in a number of key areas and setting out their initial response.

As the Conservatives start to race ahead in the polls, I have been thinking quite a bit about Conservative policies for the chapter I’m writing for our annual Voluntary Sector Strategic Analysis. I’ve been examining some of their key areas of work and exploring what this might mean for organisations and the sector if they were to win a General Election in 2010.

The Conservatives’ interest in the VCS is also linked to a bigger agenda concerning what they see as the failure of an overlarge state in running both business and society. The Green Paper sets out Conservative thinking on the sector and highlights the role they see for the VCS both in relation to how public services can best be delivered and encouraging a broader ethos of active citizenship. In an attempt to distinguish himself from Thatcher’s infamous quote, Cameron stated in his speech to launch the paper:

“There is such a thing as society; it’s just not the same things as the state. So we want to see a transformation in the role of community groups, social enterprises and the voluntary sector in helping to build a stronger society for all of us.”

This focus is reflected in policy pledges that emphasise the importance of personal responsibility, what he calls ‘bottom-up social responsibility’ as well as the central role of the VCS. The Conservatives propose a multiplicity of providers in place of the state – both from the VCS and the private sector. Within this the ‘modern mechanisms of civil society’ such as social enterprises, and the independence and diversity of the VCS appear to be particularly valued as Cameron sets out in this piece for the Independent. Inevitably, some organisations will be concerned about this; seeing the Conservative interest in the sector as a way of providing public services on the cheap. Left wing commentators of course, disagree with Cameron’s ideas, as this Guardian article by Jonathon Freedland demonstrates. The Conservatives are also open about the positive value they see in small, grassroots, community-led groups. This might imply a risk to bigger national organisations, but the key message is creating a more conducive environment for the small organisations who often struggle in an increasingly polarised sector.

After eleven years of a Labour government, it might be time for organisations to start thinking about what some of these Conservative proposals might mean for them. There is no formal timeframe for consultation on the Green Paper so now is your opportunity to influence any proposals your organisation might not agree with or endorse those your organisation might welcome. NCVO will be responding in detail to the consultation in the autumn on behalf of its members and maintaining an ongoing dialogue to influence the development of some of the areas set out in the Green Paper. If you would like to feed into this or discuss any issues in relation to the Green Paper, please contact Ann Blackmore.

Last updated at 17:32 Mon 15/Mar/10.
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