Loyal readers, please forgive my absence. The changes at WRVS are gathering pace and, just as I was about to write to tell you about them, two things happened. The first was winter arrived like a lion and since before Christmas, we’ve been out there maintaining services for older people throughout the country, supporting the emergency services, getting essential supplies to people living on their own and mobilising the strengths of communities to act together and deal with whatever gets thrown at them (and that’s not just been snowballs, lately).

The other thing is that I, like many other voluntary sector chief executives, have been preparing to roar like lions, preparing evidence for the DH’s Co-Operation and Competition Panel. This is in response to the apparently off the cuff remarks by Secretary of State, Andy Burnham when he said the NHS should be the preferred provider of care in the NHS. Hisadvisers may now be insisting that his use of the “preferred provider” phrase was a sop to rally the NHS troops and that any shift in public policy was inadvertent, but he, and the NHS, are now going to have the rather lazy assumptions behind the statement challenged ,and in the DH’s own court.

Once upon a time to think that anyone other than the NHS would be the preferred provider for the NHS would have seemed odd. Now, it seems an unthinking statement of protectionism which is having a serious effect on the partnerships that had been created between third sector bodies and the NHS.  As you’ll know, AndyBurnham’s statement surprised cabinet colleagues and caused outrage amongst charity and other not-for profit bodies (and of course many in the for profit health industry too). It appeared to renege on Labour’s 2005 manifesto pledge that the voluntary and community sector “should be considered on equal terms” as the NHS. It also contradicted statements by other DH Ministers (notably Phil Hope), the Prime Minster and other Cabinet members who have all been talking up an enhanced role for charities in the provision of public services.

This row has been rumbling for a while. I’m sure the Secretary of State and NHS managers were hoping that the third sector leaders would, like lambs, ready themselves for slaughter. However, at the end of December, the NHS Partners Network, representing private providers of NHS care and acevo, the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, put in a joint complaint to the NHS’s Co-operation and Competition Panel based on a decision by Great Yarmouth and Waveney PCT.

Yesterday that complaint was accepted.

The case is that the PCT, having originally invited NHS organisations, the private sector and voluntary organisations to bid to run its community health services, then used the Secretary of State’s speech to block bids from the private and voluntary sectors. According to acevo, other third sector chief executives are reporting that it’s not only in this PCT that the notion of the ‘preferred provider’ is being used to justify a distinct cooling of relations between providers and independent commissioners.

And now the case has gone for adjudication and we shall have to await the outcome.

But what’s worrying many of us in the third sector is that it seems to be part of a trend. On the one hand, DH and the wider Government talk about partnership and the encouragement of the third sector - but then guidance is issued (or proposed) that seems to give precedence to the interests of the NHS over any sort of  partnership agreement. Whether it’s about volunteering and the control of volunteers managed by third sector bodies; whether it’s decisions to take on the apparently profit making aspects of third sector activities in hospitals and communities; whether it’s the DH appearing to go after charitable funds in direct conflict with the requirements of the Charity Commission and Charity Law - it all seems to express a fundamental lack of understanding of the independent rights and accountabilities of third sector bodies. And it really does feel as though the Third Sector is not yet taken seriously.

Right - now I’ve got that off my chest - normal service will resume. From the snows and blizzards of Britain, I’ll tell you a story of transformation and inspiration, of organisational challenge and individual passion. And all from an organisation that is certainly not going to greet spring like a lamb and will take the posturing of politicians of any party) with a rather large pinch of salt.