SOCIAL enterprise should "come in out of the cold" and be firmly established as the third sector alongside public and private, according to Labour's election co-ordinator Alan Milburn.
At the first national social enterprise conference in Manchester Mr Milburn, who also oversees Number 10's policy directorate, gave a boost to the newly-born sector, by saying: "Social enterprise can help us deliver the opportunity society we seek. The potential is already there. Realising it will require a new drive to bring the sector in from the cold.
"We need to move beyond an automatic assumption that the only alternative to the public sector is the private sector. Over the next decade, social enterprise, and the wider voluntary sector, should become as integral to public service delivery in Britain as either the public or private sectors."
Under a third-term Labour Government social enterprise has a key role to play, said Mr Milburn. "The next election is about winning a renewed mandate to shape a future in which opportunities for prosperity are available to all those prepared to put in the effort.
"And it is here I believe that social enterprise has such a key role to play. In making enterprise not just something that is done by big business but by ordinary citizens.
"In giving people a chance not just to get buy but to get on. And in giving communities ? as well as individuals ? the chance to take control over their own lives."
A survey published by the News last week identified that social enterprise chief executives felt there were still barriers between the sector and Government. The study showed fears that social enterprise was not being recognised for public procurement contracts.
In response to the article Mr Milburn said: "There is a desire within Government to work with the Social Enterprise Coalition and solve some of the problems that have been identified. It's a long hard process, of which we are at the start of, not the end of. I think if you can break down some of these barriers between different sectors then that is in the interest of the public that we serve."
He added that Government will work with social enterprise to ensure they are not overlooked for public contracts. "Too often contracts are tentative and short-term. Bidding and procurement processes are bureaucratic. Decision-making is too slow. Announcements are often delayed. Goalposts can be moved at the very last moment.
"Poorly written contracts place services at risk. This is a vicious cycle that limits the sector's ability to deliver. A level playing field for public sector procurement is urgently needed. And we need to work together to make it happen."
Jonathan Bland, Chief Executive of the Social Enterprise Coalition, said: "We welcome Mr Milburn's commitment to deepening the role played by social enterprise in spreading opportunity and unleashing aspiration.
"His vision that social enterprise will be as integral to public service deliver as either the public or private sectors is a significant step forward."
Mr Milburn added that a future state should be built on co-operation. "Progress in the future depends on sharing responsibility with citizens. That means services can no longer be run from behind closed doors. There are enormous gains to be made from bringing the public inside the decision-making tent."
"I believe social enterprise can become a key partner in reform. There is a new future beckoning for the whole of the sector. As today's event rightly implies, that future will not just happen. It has to be made. Together that is what we must do."