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Hague: Renewing Civil Society

Thank you for your invitation to address today's annual conference of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and for the opportunity to record my appreciation for the work that you do across Britain.

Today I want to talk about the principled partnership that the next Conservative government will build with you. A principled partnership that will give the voluntary sector a voice at the top of government. A principled partnership that will revolutionise the process of applying for grants. A principled partnership that will give charities new opportunities to run schools, regenerate disadvantaged communities and take development projects to every corner of the globe.

Twenty years ago the first Conservative revolution began. Battered by regulations, taxes and inflation the enterprise of British people - which had once produced the world's most prosperous country - was exhausted.

That first Conservative revolution proved that there were no short-cuts to prosperity. I want to extend the same Conservative principles to the creation of a more compassionate society. It is not enough to define the economic limits of government. We must be realistic about the state's ability to address social needs, too. Just as wealth creation depends upon the energies of a free people; a good society depends upon the active compassion of free and independent families, neighbours and charities.

Fifty years ago Beveridge recognised this when he said: 'A good society depends not on the state but on the citizens, acting on motives of various kinds, some selfish, others unselfish, some narrow and material, others inspired by love of man and love of God. The happiness or unhappiness of the society in which we live depends upon ourselves as citizens, not on the instrument of political power which we call the state.'

The next Conservative government will improve our public services and protect social security but we will not stop there. The Common Sense Revolution will actively recognise civil society's role in building one nation of opportunity and security for all.

The pensioner who is lonely, the child who has never seen his father or the teenager turning to drugs don't always need another government initiative or taskforce of the great and good. They are crying out for the care and attention of another human being. And everyday millions of people do show compassion to a child, neighbour or stranger. Within families and communities people find friendship, identity, and belonging. Many of life's greatest obstacles - bereavement, sickness or unemployment - are overcome because of the personal support of a parent, spouse or friend.

But many active citizens are frustrated by the environment created by government. Volunteers are faced with expensive background checks. Applying for government grants involves navigating a jungle of bureaucracy. Political correctness forces charities and faith communities to dilute their essential character.

These barriers that separate good neighbours from people in need must come down. That is why I favour 'denationalising compassion'. And that is why the next Conservative government will get off the back of charities, volunteers and families.

Often government fails the voluntary sector by failing to even consider its perspective. By establishing an Office of Civil Society reporting to a Cabinet minister the next Conservative government will change this. This Office will be staffed by charities, faith communities and family groups. The 'good neighbours' who give our country its strength and decency. It is the boldest initiative of its kind for a generation.

I am announcing the Office's first four tasks today.

First, we must end the huge diversion of your time into form-filling and paperwork. We must end the master and servant relationship between government and grant applicants. The complexity and number of application forms represents an intolerable burden and disenfranchises the smallest and often most innovative charities and community groups. There is a growing danger that groups that get money are the best at hacking the system rather than those who are best at the work in hand.

The whole process can demoralise the charity workers closest to a project's ethos. Complex form-filling betrays the instincts of government to micro-manage - managing inputs and process - rather than delivering results. We will still hold charities accountable for results but the introduction of one simple form across Government departments - made up of a la carte sections covering only essential funding considerations - will demonstrate our trust in charities.

Second, the Office will help us to end the lottery of identifying sources of funding. Information about grant opportunities is not the property of the government - but the property of every interested citizen. Modern technology gives us an opportunity to establish a one-stop website which will record basic information about all public sector grant opportunities. I would prefer that groups like the NCVO, the Charities Aid Foundationand the National Centre for Volunteering should be funded to manage this service. They are in the best position to know how this website would best serve their members. This one-stop portal follows our proposal to establish a similar system - Aid Direct - for international development.

Third, the Office will coordinate efforts to encourage greater independent sector involvement in public services. It is unreasonable, for example, to expect voluntary groups - often starved of funding for core functions - to be immediately ready to embark on the process of applying to run schools, housing or employment projects. The Office will coordinate investment in the capacity of voluntary groups and faith communities - where they are interested - to seize the new opportunities. By involving the voluntary sector in schooling, housing and urban regeneration we will create more diverse provision - better suited to the variety of needs in today's Britain. In education, for example, we will empower the pioneering work of Black Majority Churches to deliver the highest quality supplementary education to their communities. The Office will also help government departments to improve their understanding of voluntary groups by giving civil servants access to training on these same possibilities of greater co-operation with voluntary groups. This training will include specific efforts to encourage more engagement with faith communities.

Fourth, the Office will produce a regular review of its work. This review will cover progress made on the Compact between the Government and the voluntary sector. It will record trends in volunteering, charitable giving and how policy changes have affected marriage, parents and the extended family. It will examine the extent to which faith communities have been fairly receiving grants. In short it will bring consideration of civil society into the heart of government.

The vital responsibility of international development will epitomize the Conservative approach to helping our neighbour. Through television and cheap and fast international travel we are right to think of the people affected by the Indian earthquake as our neighbours and that we can do something to help them. In the last year the British people have reached out their hand to their neighbours in Mozambique, El Salvador and Gujarat. Some of Britain's development charities have been the fastest and most effective agents of emergency aid as well as the most committed to long-term development projects.

I can announce today that the next Conservative government will restructure the budget of the Department for International Development and so double the percentage of our development expenditure that goes through Non-Governmental Organisations. By making it much simpler for small charities to apply for DFID grants we will ensure that these innovative charities take a big share of this doubled support for charitable groups.

In partnership with the NGO community we will establish a sophisticated website and call centre to match needs in the developing world with willing helpers in Britain. We will invest in technology to twin individuals, charities and faith communities with partners in the developing world. We will also send an extra 5,000 young people to serve abroad every year.

We all have a part to play in helping our neighbour overseas. As we move towards the UN target of giving 0.7% of GNP to international development the next Conservative government will play its full part. That will involve working in a fuller and more principled partnership with international development charities.

But however much we improve the voluntary sector's relationship with government we need to do much more to improve the sector's relationship with the rest of civil society. This is essential if we are to encourage a genuinely 'independent sector'. When a charity depends upon the state for its income it can lose touch with the community - in the same way that a subsidised business loses touch with its customers. This can lead to charities imitating the management style and ethos of government. The voluntary sector becomes the compelled sector. Compelled to change its character according to its paymasters' demands. Compelled to jump through bureaucratic hoops in response to changing compliance criteria.

A charity that receives a large share of its income from private citizens will be more diverse and innovative. And it won't just receive money. Ideas, time, encouragement and prayers will follow. The love that characterises the hospice movement is perhaps the outstanding example of this fact.

This Government may be sincere when it says that the era of centralisation is over but he who pays the piper still calls the tune. And this Government has kept very tight control of funding. There are too many contradictions in saying that Whitehall does not know best and still keeping hold of every purse string.

The Office of Civil Society will work with the voluntary sector to pilot more imaginative ways of denationalising the distribution of public funds.

75% of all voluntary organisations have no paid staff. Applying for grants is particularly burdensome for these small platoons although a few hundred pounds might transform their work. By devolving funding packages to mediating groups we can limit the way that government money shackles the voluntary sector. Local churches seeking small grants, for example, are much more likely to work comfortably with the Salvation Army or Shaftesbury Society. Both are professional Christian charities with high accountability standards and yet are also able to stand up to the demands of government funders.

Other possible reforms might involve allowing more money to follow the users of services - whether those services are daycare for the elderly or drug rehabilitation. Users - who know where the shoe pinches - could then discover more innovative and diverse services. Government officials are always going to be more comfortable with groups that approximate to their own way of doing things. They will understandably hesitate before funding new and, perhaps, unusual projects.

Public funders are making progress in consulting communities about service provision. But patterns of consultation are patchy and sometimes rely on unrepresentative voices. The Office of Civil Society will research ways of routeing public money through communities so that consultation is replaced by real power. The NCVO's idea, for example, of setting up community endowments to fund projects identified by local people merits active consideration. It would certainly be consistent with the Conservative Party's existing commitment to endow universities and museums. The OCS could research the use of charity vouchers and the use of tax credits to ensure money reaches charitable groups that most enjoy the confidence of people and communities.

Charitable giving represents the best way of increasing independence. Levels of giving - particularly by companies - are much lower in Britain than, for example, the United States. Although the Chancellor has made some welcome changes to encourage giving he has given with one hand, only to take with the other. We are currently considering proposals put to us by the voluntary sector and will make our tax announcements in coming weeks.

We also want to help the whole culture of volunteering in Britain.

The Scouts, the Football Association, the Duke of Edinburgh's award programme, Sunday schools and other countless community groups are all vital parts of our society and depend upon volunteers. Background checks on volunteers are an absolutely necessary protection for children and other vulnerable users of voluntary services. But requiring voluntary groups to pay for these checks is one stealth tax too far and Conservatives would not have imposed it.

Until today this Government was threatening to charge voluntary organisations £10 for each occasion on which they have to check the credentials of people employed to work with children. They then heard last night that I was going to announce here that the next Conservative Government would not levy any charge. By a strange coincidence, Ministers suddenly announced that, despite everything they said before, they will not impose this charge. Don't ever think that the Opposition can't do something for you.

We don't crow. We welcome the U-turn. For Conservatives regard this as an unwarranted imposition on the voluntary sector - a sector which does so much to provide quality services at least as efficiently as the public sector could do. Of course, it is important that we now examine the small print of what the Government is proposing. Too often these announcements unravel on close examination.

We at least are clear. We will abolish these charges without hidden conditions or costs to the voluntary sector. The net cost - an average of £3 million for each of the Government departments involved - will be borne from within the budgets of those Departments.

The Office of Civil Society will regularly consult volunteers and representative groups. Our Listening to Britain consultations have identified concern at the decline in volunteering amongst young people. Good citizenship is not something that you learn in a Citizenship lesson or from a textbook. By spending time volunteering and helping local charities children are encouraged to understand their responsibilities to their neighbours and play a role in building stronger communities. We believe that children should be assisted by schools to take up volunteering opportunities in their local communities.

At the heart of the teachings of the world's great religions and philosophies is the encouragement to love and care for a neighbour. The next Conservative government will be a friend of the good neighbour.

In renewing civil society we will not preach - we will empower. We will not squash the aspirations of good neighbours. We will help to fulfil them.

People want to give but the tax system is too complex and volunteers are threatened with expensive background checks. Conservatives will create a tax system and a culture of volunteering that encourages generosity.

Churches, synagogues and mosques want to do more in their communities but their religious beliefs are the subject of scorn. Conservatives will end discrimination against faith and will welcome all religious people who wish to reclaim social responsibilities.

Too many married couples face a tax system that ignores the commitments they have made. We will reform the tax system and introduce new support services for marriage.

The interests and aspirations of families, faith communities, the voluntary sector and all good neighbours will be at the heart of the Conservatives' Common Sense Revolution.

Conservatives will build a kinder, more united Britain by encouraging greater personal responsibility and responsibility for others as the foundation of civil society. Such a Britain must be underpinned by a dynamic economy. Government - through investment in schools, hospitals and social security - will still need to underwrite opportunity. But the rebuilding of communities and the healing of broken lives will most depend upon the vitality of our families, charities, places of worship and local schools.

There is not a social problem that is not being tackled by one small platoon somewhere in Britain. Every minute of everyday one life is changed forever by the care of a parent, friend or good neighbour. That care represents the greatness of our country and Conservatives will be its friend and champion.

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