The charity leaders group Acevo has used its general election manifesto to call for government to forget about the idea of big society and focus instead on creating a free society and safeguarding the right of charities to campaign.
Launched today at the umbrella body’s annual conference in London, the manifesto Free Society: Realising our nation's potential through the third sector contains three key requests of government: the implementation of a five-point pledge enshrining the right to a free society, which would guarantee third sector independence; the creation of a citizens charter on community rights; and giving the money raised from fining "fraudulent bankers" back to society.
The chief executives body has also drawn up an "end of term report card" for the coalition government, which gives it a D for the big society agenda.
"The big society has, regrettably, failed," it says. "The Prime Minister’s vision for social renewal was thwarted by a maelstrom of coalition infighting and party division.
"This was regrettable enough, but the the measures that the government have taken to stifle civil society and free speech throughout the course of this parliament have been constitutionally and morally disastrous – and actively served to weaken civil society."
Among the five points in the manifesto pledge are that government should protect the free speech of the third sector explicitly in law, protect the access of charities to judicial review, extend the right to legal aid to include charities that represent at-risk or under-represented groups and create an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Third Sector Independence and Campaigning.
The citizens charter would contain three rights for the community – the right to challenge, to bid or to buy – and two rights for citizens – the right to choice and the right to voice.
The manifesto contains a total of 36 policies, which it says are all "costed and ready to be implemented by any or all of the political parties vying for the third sector’s vote next year".
Other policies called for by Acevo include: creating a Charity Debt Advisory Service, which would help charities to make more use of social investment; reforming procurement to allow more outsourced public services to be delivered by charities; restoring the Minister for Civil Society to a minister of state-level role; and giving the Office for Civil Society extra powers.
The manifesto says that all parties should take note of the results of Acevo’s recently announced commission on the regulation of the social sector.
Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, said: "Charities and campaigners depend on a free and independent voice. At exactly the time when their views are needed most, the voices of many of our most important campaigners are being chilled by law such as the lobbying act. It’s time for politicians to recognise this pressure and stand up for our country’s civil society. Rather than promises of a big society tomorrow, we need a free society today."
Speaking at the Acevo annual dinner in London last night, Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, welcomed the manifesto and said he looked forward to debating its proposals.
"I have no issue with sensible, thoughtful challenge," he said. "It's only fair, because I will be challenging the sector over time."
The end of term report card also awarded a C on local government because of the way cutting council finances was handled.
"We wonder, though, if the cuts could have been handled in a way that hurt the most vulnerable less," it says. "We think that they could, and are concerned that in making local cuts the government has not demonstrated responsible leadership."
The card also awarded Bs for both social innovation and health, but a C+ for public services.
On public services, it says: "If we could give marks for good intentions, the government would probably be getting an A, or at the very least a B+. Sadly, however, good intentions mean nothing for the people on the ground if they don’t carry through into good practice. For this government, good delivery has been the exception rather than the rule."