NEWS IN FOCUS: Will an advocacy service make the Compact work? The formation of a Compact advocacy service may be a step in the right direction, but many charities would like a more radical solution, writes Patrick McCurry

PATRICK McCURRY

The Compact agreement between the voluntary sector and government looks good on paper but has so far failed to live up to expectations.

That is the view of many charities that are frustrated by government departments frequently failing to follow Compact principles.

But a £156,000 award by the Community Fund last month to establish a Compact advocacy service could help improve matters. The service, due to be set up in September, will battle on behalf of charities that feel hard done by in their dealings with government.

Some in the sector, however, believe more radical action is needed to make the Compact work. The Community Fund cash will pay for two members of staff, based at NCVO, to collate information on how the Compact is working (or not working) and to support charities facing difficulties.

The service will provide regular briefings to charities on how to get the best out of the Compact and what government obligations are, as well as one-to-one support to help charities resolve disputes with government departments.

Campbell Robb, director of public policy at NCVO, says the advocates' role will be to "prod

government departments that try to shirk the principles of the Compact, which has been developed over the past four years to establish better relationships between charities and the state. It includes codes of practice on consultation, funding, volunteering community groups and black and ethnic minority organisations.

Compacts are also being established at local authority level.

"If they take up a complaint, the advocates will contact the relevant government department and, if that doesn't work, probably contact the relevant minister,

says Robb.

He sits on the Compact working group, which includes ministers, civil servants and voluntary-sector representatives, and accepts that much of government "has not been quick off the mark

in implementing the agreement and its codes.

The advocates will make a difference, he believes, although they will only be able to support a small number of cases in the early years.

But some in the sector believe that much more is needed to turn things around. "One of the key problems with the Compact has been that it is not legally binding, which means there are no sanctions against government departments that do not follow it,

says Lis Pritchard, a former member of the Compact working group.

Pritchard, chief executive of the umbrella body Homeless Link, says the advocacy service is to be welcomed but it will not solve the problem of departments failing to implement Compact principles.

Robb, however, argues that a legally binding Compact would risk alienating many government departments. "I'm not sure that forcing departments to comply and possibly going to the courts would be the solution,

he says.

Nevertheless, there are areas in which government departments have been falling down, including slow responses on funding, not allowing enough time for funding applications to be received and trying to squeeze consultation into short periods.

"Funding decisions are still being given after the year to which the funding applies has started and often inadequate timescales are given for consultation exercises,

says Richard Buxton, chief executive of the Community Fund.

The most recent report of the Compact working group, while stressing that relationships between charities and government departments had improved, complains there has only been limited use in government of the consultation code of practice and of the funding code.

"Disappointingly, there is limited commitment to utilising the code in the development of new funding programmes or to review existing funding streams,

says the report.

Another problem area covers the independence of charities to criticise government policy. Under the agreement, government departments cannot threaten to withdraw funding from charities that criticise official policy.

But there have been allegations of this happening in areas such as government policy on homelessness.

For example, Louise Casey, head of the Rough Sleepers' Unit, was alleged to have told some homelessness charities they faced losing funding if they did not tow the line on the Government's anti-begging campaign, although she later denied this.

Philip Burke, chairman of homelessness charity the Simon Community says: "Many organisations are shackled by their funding and afraid to speak out."

He highlights the recent controversy when the Rough Sleepers' Unit was criticised for allegedly "massaging

figures over the number of rough sleepers in London.

Buxton argues that the advocacy services will help make the Compact "more robust

and that charities will be encouraged to highlight any breaches of the agreement, which can then be taken up with government.

But Pritchard argues strongly that tougher measures are needed if the Government is to take the Compact seriously. The Compact is an unequal partnership, given that the Government controls the money, she says.

"What we really need is an independent arbitration service so government departments can't duck their responsibilities,

she says.

In fact, a mediation service to help resolve disputes is being piloted which, if it is rolled out, could go some of the way to addressing the concerns of critics such as Pritchard.

"A mediation service would help, although it would need to be independent,

she says.

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