So last week I lost my party conference virginity at the Tory conference in Birmingham. It was fascinating: very slick speeches from the politicians in the main hall, and a myriad of fringe events everywhere else.

 Many of the fringe events centred on the Big Society and what it might mean. Tory speakers speculated that this could be because the idea is catching on. I wasn’t so sure. I think there were lots of events because no-one knows what Big Society means in practice and they were hoping for enlightenment. Enlightenment eluded me.

Instead I sensed a reality gap. The NCVO estimates that 20 million citizens already contribute through a formal volunteering role: does the population have the capacity to do more? Many charities, including Samaritans, say it is getting harder rather than easier to recruit people to work for free. Oh, and it costs money to manage volunteers. Meanwhile many charities report reduced incomes, and the cuts will put further pressure on the sector (see my report, Preparing for cuts, due out on Tuesday.) Shrinking revenue is not conducive to expansion drives to fill gaps as the state recedes. We (the general public) could contribute more to charities than the current 1% of GDP, except that surveys report people feeling somewhat personally stretched at the moment and cautious about upping their giving.

But aside from the Big Society musings there were some really useful sessions. I went to a health charity ‘dragon’s den’ hosted by the Health Hotel. Breakthrough Breast Cancer wanted to upgrade analogue breast mammograms to digital – a move of pure common sense. With digital you can email the results around to relevant medics instead of couriering slides across England at great expense. The Royal College of General Practitioners made an impassioned plea for more training for GPs. And the Princess Royal Trust for Carers made a convincing economic case for investment in support for carers which would lead to fewer demands on acute care. Simon Burns, Minister of State for Health, was on the panel. Since the conference £4.4m has been awarded to support for carers – was this already decided or was it the dragon’s den that convinced the health team of the value of carers? I think we should be told….

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