Interview: Sir Bert Massie

The future of the Compact is bleak, the head of the soon-to-be-defunct Commission for the Compact tells John Plummer

Sir Bert Massie
Sir Bert Massie

Sir Bert Massie turns 62 on Thursday 31 March, but any celebrations will surely be dampened by the fact that the Commission for the Compact, of which he is commissioner, is being abolished on the same day.

Massie smiles at the irony. His comments are often laced with humour, but his mood is more reflective as he predicts a bleak future for the Compact - the agreement signed in 1998 to improve the relationship between the public and voluntary sectors.

"It could be that the Compact will die," he says. "Now more than ever we need someone to enforce it, and we've lost that."

Labour created the commission in 2007 after the Compact struggled to take hold. Since then, the commission, the Office for Civil Society and Compact Voice, which represents the voluntary sector, have championed it jointly. It was a difficult partnership, says Massie.

"One of the ambiguities about the whole thing was who did what," he says. "Every press release had to be signed off by the three partners, so by the time they were sent out it was history.

"It's not surprising that getting publicity was an impossible task. Nobody was in charge and everybody thought they were."

Powers to investigate

Massie wanted the commission to be given powers to investigate Compact breaches and report annually to a parliamentary select committee on Compact adherence by government departments and agencies.

This, he says, would have laid bare "the good, the bad and the ugly", given the agreement more teeth and made the commission more accountable - not to its OCS paymaster, but to parliament as a whole. But this never happened.

Massie suspected the commission's days were numbered after last year's change of government. When the task of 'renewing' the Compact fell to the OCS and Compact Voice, his suspicions were confirmed. "We could see then that we were being sidelined," he says.

The decision has left the OCS and Compact Voice with joint stewardship of the Compact, an arrangement that Massie calls "dysfunctional" because both represent specific interests. "It would be irrational for Compact Voice to be anything other than a representative of voluntary organisations," he says. "It is based in the NCVO; it doesn't have a legal identity as such. It can protest and have its say, but that's all it can do."

As for the OCS, Massie says it has not been consistently Compact-complaint and, because it sits inside the Cabinet Office, it is more concerned with reducing the deficit than promoting the Compact. "With the commission you at least had an organisation that was equidistant between the third sector and government," he says.

Difficult process

One of the commission's main achievements was 'refreshing' the Compact in 2009. It was a lengthy and difficult process. "It doubled in length between Compact Voice and the Cabinet Office," says Massie. "Then we got it back down again. There were these constant pressures."

Given that the refreshed version lasted less than a year, was it a waste of time and money? "You might well say that," Massie says. "I couldn't possibly comment." At least the refresh made the 'renewal' process easier, he adds.

Nevertheless, he doesn't think the latest 16-page version is as good as the previous one. The current version, he argues, "is largely written from the government's point of view" and is too brief. "We wanted to get rid of the foliage so you could see where the trees were," he says. "The new one might have cut too many branches off the tree. Branches can grow again, but I would not have been entirely happy with the new Compact."

The renewed version was published in December alongside accountability and transparency measures that Nick Hurd, the civil society minister, said would "provide an unprecedented level of scrutiny".

These include a National Audit Office review into the effectiveness of the Compact and an announcement that the Local Government Ombudsman could investigate Compact breaches. "The ombudsman has always had that power," says Massie. "It's just not been used. You have to ask questions about how often it will be used and how effective it will be. It certainly won't be immediate. These will be long investigations, if they happen at all."

Reporting to parliament

He also is sceptical about the NAO investigation. "It's committed to doing one study of the Compact," he says. "The NAO commitment ends at that point, so who's going to do it next year? Third Sector magazine? I was suggesting to ministers that we should look at the commission reporting to parliament every year."

Massie doesn't sound optimistic about the future of the Compact. "I'm not," he agrees. "A lot depends now on whether Compact Voice can come up to the mark and whether the government really does take it seriously."

The commission and Compact Voice have a frosty relationship, so it's perhaps not surprising that Massie doubts it is up to the task. "I don't think they have the staff or resources to do the job the commission does," he says. The OCS has increased Compact Voice funding by £150,000 over the next three years; it will receive £358,000 this year. The OCS gave the commission £2m annually. Compact Voice is recruiting two staff. The commission made 16 redundant. Chief executive Richard Corden and head of policy Andy Forster are among "four or five" yet to find jobs, he says.

"The staff acquired a knowledge of the Compact and a set of skills and a body of experience that's now been lost," says Massie. "And the Compact has lost 16 people and gained two. It's no longer got a £2m budget."

What did the commission's £8m over four years achieve? Its first year was bedevilled by departures, including that of Massie's predecessor, John Stoker. Massie admits there was a "shaky start" but says things have improved. "We brought the Compact back to life," he says. "We got more publicity for it in the first year when I was there than it had in the previous 10 years."

It also commissioned a raft of research. "When I came to the commission, the Compact had been around for 10 years and there was no research base," says Massie. "It was government policy for 10 years and nobody had examined whether it worked. Now we know where it works; we know where it fails. We've got a really good research base. We've also tied the Compact to various laws, such as the Equality Act, so we had by stealth introduced a lot of law into the Compact."

Council cuts

He says the commission would currently have been taking a more robust line than Compact Voice against badly managed council cuts to the voluntary sector. "Look at Liverpool, where I come from," he says. "The voluntary sector has had its funding cut by half. We would have been writing to local authorities reminding them of the Compact and saying 'if you have a problem, talk to us'."

Massie is more worried about the Compact's future than his own. He has several charitable and business interests that would fill the 14 unpaid hours a week devoted to being commissioner. "I'll sit and read Dickens," he says. "I don't need a full-time job."

If the Compact does survive, he thinks the wheel will turn full circle. "I suspect the government will create something like the commission in the future because I can't believe the current arrangements will work. We're talking three or four years ahead. But there needs to be an independent organisation that's there to be a guardian of the Compact."

See how the 'bonfire of the quangos' is part of the government's strategy for the sector

Read Nick Hurd's verdict on three other quangos that are being axed

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