David Cameron has a habit of praising the voluntary sector in order to undermine state provision. His proposals today to promote the delivery of public services by the voluntary sector are very interesting indeed. Labour's welfare reform proposals move in that direction also.
There are a number of dangers the Tories should be aware of. Most particularly, state-commissioned services are still state services. There will have to be monitoring, contracts, conditions, even where front-line delivery is contracted out. So even if Age Concern run care homes, Barnado's run social services, or Eton runs state schools, and I'm not dismissing any of this at all (OK, maybe I'd dismiss the idea of Eton running state schools....) there will have to state direction as well as democratic accountability.
The worry for charities themselves, and some international aid agencies have experienced this, is that they become an extended arm of the state. Donations collapse (people pay their taxes, why should they pay twice? Also, what incentive is there to fundraise when you can meet all your resource requirements and make a healthy surplus from state cash?) The voluntary sector could well lose its distinctive character and ethos. That doesn't matter to the private sector as long as they make a buck. But it should be a concern for charities.
So more voluntary agency provision sounds like a nice idea and it is certainly worth pursuing but the Tories evade a lot of the tough questions about how it would work in practice. Low accountability and high risk or high accountability and lower risk?