Thursday, 4 March 2010

Condoms and chocolate

Last night was ‘Vote Social Enterprise 2010’ (as well as our AGM), and quite a night it was. We held it at the lovely SEL members, Coin Street Community Builders landmark neighbourhood centre on the Southbank. To illustrate how diverse social enterprise is, and to get the evening off with a bang, so to speak, we handed everyone social enterprise condoms from One and some yummy Divine chocolate.

Being SEL’s first public intervention in the build up to the general election, we had managed to persuade Third Sector Minister Angela Smith and her Lib Dem and Tory shadows Jenny Willott and Nick Hurd to share a platform with myself and the magnificent June O’Sullivan of London Early Years Foundation. The aim was to get a bit of meat onto the three party’s plans for social enterprise.

With Third Sector Minister Angela Smith yesterday evening 

Angela kicked off by saying that government should “lead by example in buying from and working with social enterprises”. Music to the ears of the massed social entrepreneurs in the audience. She also exclusively revealed that a regular meeting of Cabinet Ministers examining the barriers to third sector organisations accessing contracts is “soon to be established”. She also said she’d have to shoot anyone who mentioned it outside the room – do you think that includes you?

I liked Nick's opening comments as he held up his packet of condoms and chocolate bar and wondered out loud whether he had to put them in the House of Commons Gifts Register? It got the best laugh of the evening.

One headline was the assurance from all three that the Office of the Third Sector will remain – something which will no doubt be met with sighs of relief from OTS staffers, and those of us who acknowledge how strong a contribution the OTS has made to social enterprise development not least in funding the Coalition's Social Enterprise Ambassadors Program and supporting our award winning work on Winning with social enterprise at 2012.

I was particulalry over the moon when Loona Hazarika from Silverback Works asked our panel what they were planning to do to safeguard the future of vital support organisations like SEL if Regional Development Agencies are to be threatened. All the candidates responded really positively culminating in Nick Hurd going so far as to say he, for one "would not like to tell Allison she isn't getting her money", sensible chap.

John Charles of Catering2Order, who I’m delighted to say has just been elected to the SEL board, provoked thoughtful responses to his excellent question on the potential of a social enterprise hub at the 2012 Games. Angela said she would raise it with Tessa Jowell, the Olympic Minister and Nick made clear that it was something that he would raise with Boris – watch this space.

Jenny made an important point on the Lib Dems policy of promoting community land trusts and offering disused public sector space to social enterprises at peppercorn rent – sure to go down well with our sylish hosts at Coin Street and over at the Development Trust Association.

Dai Powell of HCT Group mentioned the elephant in the room, with a question on plans to extend the right to request to all public services. This was particularly pertinent as the Government's own Competition Panel, set up to look at the Department of Health's u-turn on this, was itself banjaxed that very afternoon. In the light of which we got some interesting responses, particularly from Angela, who told us that Labour would examine the case to "expand the right to request, but we need to invest in the process and make sure that the private sector doesn’t just move in” and from Nick, who positively blasted Andy Burnham for "turning his back" on the policy – Tories, he said, are right behind the right to request “in principle, as we want to inspire people“. He even hinted that Mr Burnam's position on right to request was possibly, a potential leadership gambit. A thrilling moment, when the gloves came off.

June, who’s comments were nothing short of a tour-de-force, pressed harder on right to request. Looking for firmer commitments, she spoke on behalf of the room when she said, pointedly staring at our Minister, that she was not satisfied that either her question or Dai's had been answered. We didn't get any more but safe to say, the point had been made.

The whole thing was communicated through Twitter (which even a couple of years ago would have been unthinkable), under the tag #VoteSocEnt10. There were some strong contributions on there from the room, especially from Cliff Prior of UnLtd, who also asked a great question on engaging and supporting entrepreneurs.

All in we were delighted with the whole night, lovely comments from members – many of whom stayed with us to do justice to the wine. One of the things I love about social entrepreneurs is their enthusiasm for the big picture, they are, all in all, a very well informed lot. The room was animated as people talked into the night about what they had heard and who they would vote for. Roll on the election.

For full details have a look at David Ainsworth's quick off the mark piece in Third Sector this morning, and Chrisanthi Giotis's lovely article in Social Enterprise Magazine this afternoon.

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