Government must not stop charities from talking to politicians, says O'Donnell

The former head of the civil service tells the NCVO annual conference that the voluntary sector's relationship with the government is becoming more complex

Baron O'Donnell of Clapham
Baron O'Donnell of Clapham

The government must not be allowed to block channels that allow charities to share their experiences with politicians, according to Baron O’Donnell of Clapham, the former head of the civil service. 

O’Donnell, who worked as Cabinet Secretary between 2005 and 2011 before being made a peer in 2012, made the comments at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' annual conference in London yesterday.

He said the House of Lords, as a body that worked to revise legislation, particularly needed to hear from charities in order to ensure legislation was effective.

"One specific role you have in this sector is the need to feed back learning from the front-line operations," he said.

"As a member of the House of Lords I get notes from Citizen’s Advice detailing what is happening on the front line, and this is massively useful."

He said the sector’s relationship with government was becoming more complex.

He said: "Legislation and other proposals threaten our ability to campaign and to fundraise, and some question whether charities should even be delivering public services."

Earlier in the day, Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, said he was concerned that some public figures were seeking to question charities’ fundamental legitimacy as voices in public debates and that there was a growing notion that charities should be seen and not heard.

He pointed as a particular example to the forthcoming anti-advocacy clause in grant agreements, which will be introduced in new and renewed grant agreements with central government departments and will prevent charities from using public sector grants to lobby. 

O’Donnell did not specifically mention the clause, but said: "All of you feeding back messages from the front line to government to create political pressure for change is very important.

"And that’s why I very strongly agree with Stuart on that vital channel – we must not let government proposals get in the way of improving the routes by which we in government learn what is important and what is not."

During his time in the civil service, he said, he had been surprised by how often government "embarked on a project without that much clarity on the ultimate objective". He said that good policy, particularly when involving charities, should involve an analysis of the impact it was likely to have.

And it was partly up to charities, he said, to ensure they obtained strong evidence by which their impact could be measured.

Ultimately, O'Donnell said, charities should be looking to put themselves out of business.

"What I mean by that is that we need to find ways to prevent problems before they become intractable, not just cure them, and that will have implications for what we do and what we campaign about," he said.

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