Third sector review must reach roots

Third sector review must reach roots 

Laurence Demarco
Regeneration & Renewal

I’ve read carefully the Budget announcement about the review of the third sector. No hype or sound bites, it has the hallmark of serious intent.

It will cross departments, but Gordon Brown has kept it close, in the Treasury – feeding into the big Comprehensive Spending Review next year. He’s looking for ‘long-term priorities for the sector in the context of challenges our society now faces’.

Brown said at the end of last year that charities, businesses and generous individuals can advance fairness, but that it can be ‘guaranteed only by enabling government’. If he becomes Prime Minister, Brown is likely to make ‘fairness’ his kite mark – and he recognises the potential of the third sector in helping to achieve this.

The Budget statement speaks of the ‘largest consultation ever undertaken with the third sector’, but I have concerns about whose voice will be heard. Disturbing research from Third Sector magazine last week shows that the typical charity chief executive is still white, middle aged and middle class – the polar opposite of the disadvantaged. Those with the loudest voices are the two per cent of charities who receive 70 per cent of the sector’s total income and can afford specialist public relations work. Some argue that these mammoth service contractors are a different sector and should no longer call themselves ‘voluntary’.

At present, the third sector provides around ten per cent of state services.

The last annual report from England’s Commission for Social Care Inspection said that, in both residential and domiciliary care, their services significantly outperform those run by councils or the private sector. Where this is so, they deserve to win contracts and I hope that over the next decade this ten per cent will become 50 per cent despite this meaning the de facto nationalisation of great chunks of the third sector.

But service delivery is a sideshow. For those interested in social change, the real action lies with tens of thousands of largely ‘unmapped’ community groups. Overwhelmingly voluntary, with few staff and rickety funding, this is the real cutting edge of the sector I recognise: millions of local people with local savvy and commitment involved seven days a week. The review needs to reach them. If we can unleash the community sector we’ll see social change, but first we’ll need to shift the vested interests who like things as they are: under their control.

Laurence Demarco is director of Senscot: