National heritage secretary Virginia Bottomley today pledged to act as a champion for volunteering and voluntary organisations.
Speaking at the Charity Directors' Network Dinner in London, Mrs Bottomley was announcing the publication of the government's response to the report of the Deakin Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector.
Mrs Bottomley said:
'The Deakin report is a thoughtful, considered document. There is much to agree with in it. I am pleased to publish the government's detailed response as a further contribution to this important debate.
'Some recommendations are addressed directly to me and to my department. The report urged me to 'raise the voltage' within Whitehall in relation to volunteering and voluntary organisations. I believe my department is in a strong position to do just that. Since taking on responsibility for voluntary organisations and volunteering earlier this year, I have chaired two meetings of the Ministerial Group on Volunteering and the Voluntary Sector. Discussions in the Ministerial Group in July and October were important in determining the shape of this response.
'The report proposed a 'concordat' between government and voluntary organisations to promote good relations. I support the aim of encouraging good practice and better understanding of the roles and responsibilities of government and voluntary organisations. However, the term 'concordat' seems to imply a more rigid relationship than is appropriate, given the diverse and dynamic nature of voluntary organisations.
'Co-operation is the key to ensuring a dynamic future for the voluntary sector. The response to the report also records the government's support for many of the recommendations addressed to other key participants: to local government, to business and to voluntary organisations and intermediary bodies.
'The health of the voluntary sector is closely bound up with that of the nation's entire social fabric. It must be nurtured and encouraged to grow and prosper. I am committed to using the resources at my disposal to act as a catalyst in this process.'
The Deakin Report recommended that there should be extensive public debate leading to a redefinition of the term charity, based on the concept of public benefit. It also proposed a voluntary sector Law Commissioner to keep aspects of voluntary sector law under review and an independent Charity Appeal Tribunal with powers to review decisions of the Charity Commission on the registration of charities.
The Charity Commission is to carry out a comprehensive review of the existing register ofcharities following the introduction of a new, IT-based register. The Commission has a substantial task in front of it, particulary as it is committed to promoting public discussion of the scope of charity under the existing law.
The government believes that process should be completed before deciding whether more fundamental reform is needed.
In the light of the Charity Commission's programme of review, their acknowledged expertise and the demands of the Law Commission in other areas, the government has concluded that it is not appropriate to involve the Law Commission in this process.
In parallel with this work, further consideration is to be given to finding a cheaper mechanism for clarifying the law in novel cases. However the government doubts whether a Charity Appeal Tribunal is the answer, without a major revision of the procedures of the courts.
The report did not focus in any detail on volunteering. It did however endorse the government's efforts to broaden the base of volunteering, and in particular to involve young people, while emphasising that in extending volunteering opportunities the principle of free choice must not be compromised. The government response acknowledges the importance of maintaining this freedom of choice.
The report praised the work of the National Lottery Charities Board (NLCB) in providing significant funding to the voluntary sector, and supported research currently in progress into the impact of the Lottery on the sector.
It made a number of recommendations about the operation of the Lottery, including a proposal that NLCB grantmaking should be more decentralised through NLCB regional structures and other regional organisations. The government response is that the board already has an appropriate level of regional input into its grant-making processes, consistent with the need for decisions on applications to be taken by board members.
The report also proposed that the case should be assessed for greater safeguards against substitution of public funds. The response states that there is no evidence that Lottery funds are being used as a substitute for public funds, and there is no need at present for an assessment.