Thursday, November 30, 2006

Does anyone really think it would have been better if government had simply stood aside?

Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband gave speeches recently about how the voluntary sector can flourish and play a part in tackling poverty. One speech was thoughtful, knowledgable and rooted in an understanding of the different strengths and weaknesses of the voluntary sector and the public sector, and the other was glib, built around soundbites rather than analysis and ducked the tough questions.

The speeches are here and here, and if you thought New Labour was too much about governing by soundbite, I shudder to think what a Cameron government would be like.

Miliband's speech is interesting on its own merits, but what I really like is how he demolishes Cameron's argument that what is needed is a shift 'from state to society', and that cutting back state welfare will lead to a 'fantastic flourishing of social enterprise'.

Miliband says, "There are things that the sector can do that the state cannot. I’ll be honest with you: I think there are things that the state can do that the sector can’t.

First, provide universality and equity in public services. In general, whatever the levels of innovation provided by the sector, it takes government to guarantee public services are available to all who need them.

Of course, this is because funding from general taxation is unique to government. But the partnership model suggests we should neither underestimate the importance of this, nor allow government to abdicate its responsibility for it.

The interesting thing about the history of a number of different services in this country, as I will explain, is that they were pioneered by the sector and then funded universally by the state.

Of course, the most famous examples are education, health and social security before the 1945 welfare state settlement. This is an example where the social progress that was made would not have been possible without the voluntary sector.

You pioneered new services, the campaign for them to be funded universally became overwhelming and then political change at the ballot box made it happen.

This takes me to the second attribute of the state: accountability. The fact that politicians nationally and locally are elected is basic but incredibly important.

The sector too provides accountability, speaking up, as I have said for the voiceless, but for it to work it must be matched by the political accountability that comes from local or central government. The third sector brings vibrancy and diversity; the state’s role must be to try and ensure all voices are equally represented. And ultimately it must do so because it is accountable.

In describing these different characteristics or attributes of state and sector, I hope I have given an indication of how they can complement each other. Each does things that the other finds difficult.


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Take childcare. In childcare, it was the third sector that identified the new need twenty or thirty years ago and started providing childcare in small settings as women went out to work in increasing numbers.

The sector continued to provide that care but also recognised that voluntary activity would not meet the extent of the needs, so it campaigned for universal childcare.

And recently local authorities have been given a new duty in the Childcare Act to secure sufficient childcare to meet local needs. This means that they will work with Third Sector providers and others. Unlike in the case of the Beveridge settlement, the Act assumes that the state sector is a provider of last resort."

Does anyone doubt the improvement that has happened and does anyone really think it would have been better if government had simply stood aside?"

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