Andy Hillier: It's time for some strong and stable sector policies

A hung parliament offers hope and opportunity to the sector, argues the editor of Third Sector

Andy Hillier
Andy Hillier

Theresa May went to the polls seeking an increased majority and a strong hand in her Brexit negotiations. She has failed.

The Conservatives might have emerged with the largest number of seats, but equally with the knowledge that a growing proportion of the electorate wants change.

There is growing weariness of austerity after almost a decade of cuts. Communities want properly funded services that work, not just endless excuses about why the coffers are bare.

For the charity sector, this provides an opportunity to reboot its relationship with government. A weak minority government needs friends, not charitable organisations that endlessly criticise its polices from afar. It needs a charity sector on its side and endorsing and supporting its aims.

But this will require movement on the government’s behalf.

A great deal of government time and effort has been spent in recent years trying to put charities in their place. The creation of the lobbying act, an updated version of the Charities Act and, of course, changes to fundraising self-regulation have consumed much of the Office for Civil Society’s policy resources in recent years.

There have been efforts to introduce more positive policies for the charity sector by encouraging social investment, redistributing Libor fines to charitable causes and the creation of the Tampon Tax. Overall, however, positive charity sector policies have been severely lacking, especially compared with generations before.

We should remember that under the Conservatives in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Gift Aid, the National Lottery and payroll giving were created and all remain today. (Admittedly, in the case of payroll giving, even if it has largely underperformed.)

But it is these long-term, sustainable policy ideas that support a wide section of charities that are so desperately needed. 

The Conservative manifesto pledge of 2015 to allow staff three days of paid volunteering leave was an attempt at creating such a policy, but ultimately proved too bold and unworkable in an era of austerity, and was, of course, unceremoniously dumped from the latest manifesto.

There appears to be no clear plan about how the government will help to tackle the pressing issues facing the sector, many of which were identified by the recent House of Lords committee inquiry into the sector. These include helping charities to upskill in the digital age and cope more broadly with what looks set to be many more years of economic uncertainty and public spending cuts.

The sector may well soon be on the receiving end of a lecture about its governance and leadership arrangements when the long-awaited report on the demise of Kids Company is published in the coming months. But will that be accompanied by a commitment from government to help charities strengthen their boards and assist with funding to help them to boost their leadership? Let’s hope this new government is more focused on solutions.

Personalities matter too. Rob Wilson has lost his seat in Reading East and won’t be returning as charity minister. He was not universally popular within charity circles, his critics arguing that he lacked a passion for charities and was too workmanlike in his approach. To his credit, he never shied away from the media and spent a great deal of time trying to resolve the fundraising crisis of 2015 in often difficult circumstances.

His departure, though, will give rise to optimism that another minister of Nick Hurd’s calibre can be found: someone who is more overtly on the sector’s side.

Let’s hope that whoever is chosen already has an understanding that a healthy democracy and, indeed, a healthy society requires a strong charitable sector that is willing to challenge those in power; and that his or her government can produce some strong and stable policies that will support the charity sector well into the future.

Andy Hillier is editor of Third Sector

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