Caroline Slocock: The voluntary sector must take back control

The director of Civil Exchange, which this week published the report Shared Society? The Independence of the Voluntary Sector in 2017, says charities need to regain their voice

Caroline Slocock
Caroline Slocock

"Take back control" might sound like a political slogan, but there’s a message here for the voluntary sector.

There are too many people in Britain who think that government doesn’t work for them, and for those with the least this is especially true. The Royal Society of Arts’ inclusive economy project, which consulted small groups of people from ‘communities left behind’, found these groups feel they have no voice or power and do not trust politicians and key institutions. But they do think that the voluntary sector can help them make things different.

There’s potential for a shared agenda to give them more control. Sector leaders, most notably Sir Stuart Etherington, the chief executive of National Council for Voluntary Organisations, see the potential to speak up on behalf of disempowered groups, post-Brexit. The Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to create a shared society in which Britain ‘works for everyone’. 

But there are lessons to learn from the big society, which closely resembles May’s commitment to do government differently, but which was undermined by both austerity and a top-down, directive style of government in which market forces and corporate interests dominate and the independence of the sector is undermined.

Will this change? The Prime Minister has committed to ‘think not of the powerful, but you’ but last year she failed to adopt key obesity recommendations that would help tackle health inequalities - one of her ‘burning injustices’. 

After ClientEarth won a second judicial review forcing the government again to revisit its plans on clean air, the government reversed cost controls on non-governmental organisations taking court cases on the environment and health, putting future interventions like these at risk. A lack of action on clear air is killing 40,000 people a year.

The voice of the sector needs to be encouraged, not sidelined.  Even the latest round of the Tampon Tax Fund - which gives back to women’s causes the VAT women pay on female sanitary products – now expressly excludes advocacy, campaigning and awareness raising.  Actions such as these, and the unreformed lobbying act (despite Lord Hodgson’s recommendations) speak volumes.

The Prime Minister must make a clear statement about the importance of the sector’s voice in policy-making, public service design and democratic debate – even, and perhaps particularly, when funded by government.  And then match actions to words.

The new grant standards were a botched opportunity, though some watering down of the ‘no advocacy clause’ is welcome. Some sector leaders claimed the job was done, but others rightly pointed out that the standards still had major problems.  The Cabinet Office said it had put an end to a waste of money on ‘political lobbying’ – and in the detail gave the strongest possible steer against.  The result: profound muddiness where clarity is required.

It’s vital that organisations that serve individuals and communities facing unfairness and inequality get government funding that works, not contract funding that is inaccessible and unnecessarily restrictive.  Grants might have been part of the solution – but the new standards make them much more like contracts.

The sector must rediscover the confident, clear voice that people who look to it to help them take control require, taking control of its own independent purpose at the same time. Perhaps the most worrying thing about the last 12 months is that there’s been a chilling – even freezing – effect on the voice of the sector, particularly during the EU referendum, warned off by negative Charity Commission guidance, and weakened by funding that does not work. 

The problem of our political system is not too much voice for people, but too little. The voluntary sector must ensure its takes back control.

Caroline Slocock is the director of Civil Exchange

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