So we still don’t really know how much weight to put on the “preferred provider” message from Andy Burnham. Yesterday the DH’s Cooperation and Competition Panel decided not to continue investigating the case brought by ACEVO about the closure of a tendering process to all except NHS providers by Yarmouth and Waveney PCT. You’ll remember they cited the secretary of state’s speech as the reason for halting the normal procurement process.  Rather than leaving the panel to rule on the case, the DH ordered the PCT to review its plans, so the case was deemed void.

On the one hand, it must be good that an anti-competitive procurement was pulled. On the other, it’s a shame - for everyone - that there still isn’t clarity about the status of the secretary of state’s off the cuff preferred provider message. It had looked as though the panel had been about to rule that the statement could, in effect, be ignored and that commissioners could not prefer the NHS over other sectors. It’s a missed opportunity for clarification.

Does it matter? Well for the third sector it does – and for patients and service users who benefit from the tailored and personalised services of third sector bodies it does.  It matters for organistaions like WRVS that want to be business-like, to plan our budgets and to develop services that really meet patients’ needs so that - for example - our traditional hospital cafes and shops can become centres of advice and information, reassurance and comfort for older people in hospitals – but only if we can continue to tender to keep these cafes open in the first place.

It also matters to the chancellor and to George Osborne. At breakfast with Alastair Darling last week he showed real interest in the potential of third sector bodies to grow services that complement and support patient services – and sometimes to develop new types of services that can be more responsive and, yes, better value for money, than some existing public serviies.  He could see how social enterprise, even in traditional charities like ours, can bring value and energy to service delivery.

So too can the Shadow Chancellor and I’m looking forward to having a similar opportunity to talk to him and Andrew Lansley in a couple of weeks about just what the third sector can offer in tough times.

Of course, third sector bodies won’t always win the contracts – we’ve lost a few ourselves in the past because of previous lack of business sense. We weren’t used to having to demonstrate value for money and outcomes – but we and most of the third sector are now well able to do so. We know that together, in partnership with the NHS and other public bodies, we can provide the best possible services within tight resources.

But only if we get the chance to enter the game. That’s why the third sector has been so incensed by both the secretary of state’s ‘slip’ – and more importantly by the reaction of some public bodies – rubbing their hands at the thought that we were safely put back into our box.  I’m glad that the protectionist policies were challenged. I’m glad Yarmouth and Waveney have been told to think again. I’d have preferred it if the statement had been formally clarified – and but for the embarrassment - I’m sure the Chancellor would have like that too. Because what really matters to us all, in a time of very scarce resources, is how are we, together, going to get the best, most effective and most creative solutions for patients at a time of considerable financial squeeze.