The Blair legacy: good for the sector, less so for beneficiaries

Tony Blair's premiership has helped "champion" charities, but has been "disappointing" for some of the causes they support, charities told Third Sector Online.

The Prime Minister, who yesterday announced that he will stand down on 27 June, was praised for supporting charities, and particularly for pursuing the Charities Act and the creation of the Compact and the Office of the Third Sector. However, charities were critical of his record on human rights, international development, the environment and animal welfare.

Liz Atkins, director of public policy at the NCVO said there had been a “seismic change” in attitude towards the sector, led by the Labour Government. “The sector is now embraced as a partner and Government is interested in real dialogue; previously there was very much an oppositional stance,” she said. The Office of the Third Sector had, she said, been “a champion of the voluntary and community sector in Government”.

Acevo chief executive Stephen Bubb praised Tony Blair’s leadership in achieving “a growth in the maturity of the relationship between the sector and the Government”. He said: “Blair has personally seen the potential for third sector organisations to deliver user focused public services. His influence and drive has pushed this to the top of the agenda in Whitehall in relation to public service reform.”

The Institute of Fundraising’s director of policy and campaigns, Megan Pacey, called the establishment of the Office of the Third as Tony Blair’s “most substantial” legacy, saying he had demonstrated “a significant commitment” to the voluntary sector.

Volunteering England’s head of information, Mark Restall welcomed the emphasis on volunteering and its role in society under Blair. “It’s not longer seen as just about people in charity shops,” he said. “It is now seen as having a role in community cohesion, supporting young people and crime reduction.”

He also welcomed many of the “concrete” measures passed under Blair’s leadership, such as Timebank, Do It, the Russell Commission, v and the volunteering hub. “The public service delivery agenda sets its own challenges to volunteering but the Government’s measures have been overwhelmingly positive,” he added.

However, charities were less positive about the legacy Blair leaves for some charities’ beneficiaries. He made a “flying start but a disappointing finish,” in the field of animal welfare, according to Tim Phillips, campaigns director at Animal Defenders International and the National Anti-Vivisection Society. Neil Sinden, policy director at Campaign to Protect Rural England, said Blair had failed to make as big an impact as hoped for on the environmental agenda.

Human Rights

The Prime Minister’s legacy on rights and freedoms is contradictory, said Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty. “He has left us the Human Rights Act – a modern Bill of Rights which he failed to promote or defend,” she said. “He left us gay equality legislation and the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. On the other hand, our most authoritarian premier in living memory has ‘re-balanced the criminal justice system’ away from the presumption of innocence.

“He has introduced punishment without trial and restricted free speech, protest and privacy in the name of a ‘War on Terror’, in which even the absolute rule against torture seems apparently negotiable.”

Disability

Dame Jo Williams, Mencap's chief executive, gave Tony Blair a mixed report on learning disability issues. "In the past 10 years important foundations have been laid in the social care sector, and certain things have got better for people with a learning disability and their families,” she said. “Policy initiatives including Valuing People, self-directed support and the Life Chances report have brought the importance of individualised services to the fore.

However, she added: “The abuse investigations in Cornwall and in Sutton and Merton, the institutional discrimination in the NHS revealed by Mencap's Death by Indifference report, and the fact that only around 10 per cent of people with a learning disability are in employment show that huge challenges remain if the new Prime Minister is to deliver real equality."

Scope’s executive director, Andy Rickell, agreed that there was more to be done, but described the Prime Minister’s legacy as “impressive”.

He said: "Significant milestones include the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act and the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, which made it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people in key areas including education and public transport and placed a duty on public bodies to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people.”

He also welcomed the promotion and extension of direct payments to disabled people, the establishment of key bodies such as the Office for Disability Issues and the Disability Rights Commission, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which the UK was one of the first countries to sign up. 

Children

Opinion on the Prime Minister’s legacy in the children’s sector was more positive. The NSPCC credited him for the introduction of many measures to give vulnerable children extra help and protection, such as the Children Act, the Protection of Children Act, the Sex Offences Act, and Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups. It also applauded him for establishing the posts of Children’s Commissioner in England and Minister for Children, as well as for introducing the Sure Start family support programme.

“Under Tony Blair’s leadership, the Government has taken major steps forward towards a cruelty-free future for children,” said NSPCC director Dame Mary Marsh. “We look forward to working with the new Prime Minister to keep child protection high on the political agenda.”

Children’s Society chief executive Bob Reitemeier, cautioned that there was still more to do, but was positive about the past ten years. “Key milestones such as putting the Every Child Matters agenda in place and pledging to end child poverty will make a huge difference when implemented,” he said.

Social Care

The Blair Government has delivered significant changes in services affecting vulnerable children and adults and highlighted the importance of the role of families as nurturers and carers, according to Norma Brier, chief executive of Norwood.

“The increase in regulation and inspection of the sector has been welcome in driving up standards,” she said. “However, the implementation has been complex and expensive for voluntary organisations. Most helpful has been the increased professionalisation of care sector workers, although we still await the recognition and status that should go with this.

She added: “I believe Blair will be missed as a great Statesman who also recognised the need to regularise and improve the services being provided to vulnerable groups of people. The weakness here was not ensuring that there was sufficient funding at the right time to ensure the universal impact of these changes.”

Health and Medical

Martin Dockrell, policy and campaigns manager at anti-smoking charity Action on Smoking and Health, said that, from his charity's point of view, Blair's premiership had been a positive one.

"He made a great start with the Smoking Kills campaign, which was one of the first things he did. That set a blueprint for 10 years of tobacco control, which has meant the UK has been one of the world leaders in that area.”

The forthcoming crackdown on smoking in public places was the "jewel in the crown of Labour's record on tobacco control", he added, even though Blair took some convincing to put it into practice. "He was eventually persuaded to do what he thought was right."

But his successor would have to continue that work, he said. "Smoking is still the biggest preventable killer and the cause of half of inequality in health between the richest and poorest in the UK."

Sane chief executive Marjorie Wallace was more equivocal in her praise. "Tony Blair, particularly through his wife Cherie, is, we know, personally sensitive to the suffering and needs of people with mental health problems,” she said.

However, she said he himself had acknowledged that progress had been disappointingly slow. “Despite mental health being made one of the three health priorities, cuts, closures and shortages still leave thousands who need help short-changed," she said.

Maxine Taylor, Cancer Research UK's executive director of policy and communications, praised the development of the Cancer Plan increased research funding the introduction of the bowel cancer screening programme, and a firm stance on tobacco. "Saving tens of thousands of lives, these initiatives leave a powerful legacy,” she said. “However, with a growing ageing population, cancer is far from being a ticked box. And if we are to beat this disease, the Government must continue to prioritise and invest in cancer services and research."

Environment

Neil Sinden, policy director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said Tony Blair had promised much on the environment in his early years but had failed to make as big an impact as hoped for on the wider environmental agenda.

“His emphasis on climate change, and preparedness to give a lead on international action to tackle it, has been welcome and so has his boldness in fighting for meaningful reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, helping to secure a shift in the nature of the subsidy regime,” he said.

“We have seen significant progress with the renewal of many urban areas, proposals for two new National Parks, and an extension of public access. But there has not been enough recognition of the value of the wider countryside, as an environmental and cultural asset, and as a major contributor to everyone’s quality of life, whether living in town or country,” he added.

“Good intentions on integrated transport, in both urban and rural areas, have not translated into a major shift onto public transport, and away from the car. And Downing Street’s sporadic interest in reform of the planning system, under pressure from the business sector, has been largely negative, undermining its role as a democratic tool for environmental protection and enhancement.”

Animals

Tim Phillips, campaigns director at Animal Defenders International and the National Anti-Vivisection Society, said the Prime Minister’s “milestone achievements” on animal welfare – including the Animal Welfare Act and banning fur farming, hunting and hare-coursing – had been spoiled by his “sense of reluctance” on those issues, and by his recent support for Cambridge University’s animal laboratory.

“Looking back, Tony Blair’s attitude towards animal protection can be seen as a microcosm of how he steadily lost touch with public opinion, and even his own party, during the course of his long premiership,” he said. “A flying start but a disappointing finish as he became the first Prime Minister to actively campaign for animal experiments.

“His ill-advised support of the monkey laboratory, the rise in animal experiments during each year he was in power, and even signing an online petition supporting animal research, have more to do with media spin and old university ties than conviction,” Phillips added.

International

The Blair Government’s rhetoric on international development was positive, but the reality didn’t always live up to expectations, charities said.

ActionAid welcomed the he formation of the Department for International Development, which has given poverty issues a higher profile in government and the passing of the International Development Act. However it criticised the lack of progress on the G8 targets set in 2005, debt relief, and UK influence over EU global trade policy.

“While an increased commitment to Africa is undeniable, often the pledges and implementation were miles apart,” said Patrick Watt, Policy Coordinator at ActionAid.

The Iraq war was a serious mistake that overshadowed other achievements, according to Oxfam. "By setting up the Africa Commission and using his presidency of the EU and G8 in 2005 as leverage, Tony Blair helped to create an unprecedented global focus on Africa and poverty, and elicit some important pledges from other governments as well as his own,” said the charity’s director Barbara Stocking.

"However, more needs to be done. Other G8 countries are lagging far behind on aid, and despite significant increases in its own aid, the UK needs to set out a definitive timetable to show that it will meet its commitments by 2010."

Cafod said the Blair government has delivered generosity, but not justice. Despite progress in some areas, the charity said, ten years after Blair took office, the challenges of development remain daunting: 5,000 children are still dying every day from drinking dirty water and a billion people are still living in extreme poverty.

Stephen Turner, director of policy at WaterAid, expressed concern for the future. “What will happen to water and sanitation in the UK international development agenda with the inevitable cabinet reshuffle when Tony Blair leaves?” he asked. “In the present cabinet, the Secretary of State for International Development; Hilary Benn has been a real champion for prioritising clean water and effective sanitation. When Hilary Benn leaves the department who will pick up the challenge to prevent 5,000 children dying every day from the second biggest killer in the world – water-related diseases?”


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