Panel underestimates threat to charities' independence, campaign group says

The Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector is accused of failing to distinguish between the interests of the government and the voluntary sector

Andy Benson, director of the National Coalition for Independent Action
Andy Benson, director of the National Coalition for Independent Action

A panel set up to assess the independence of the voluntary sector is not sufficiently representative of front-line charity workers and has underestimated the scale of threats to charities’ independence, the National Coalition for Independent Action has said.

The Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector, a group set up in June to raise awareness of the importance of charities’ independence and assess any threats to it, published a paper in July to instigate debate and asked charities to submit responses to the paper.

In its response, the NCIA, an alliance that campaigns for charity independence, is highly critical of the new panel. The director of the alliance is Andy Benson.

The response says: "The ‘great and the good’ are strongly represented, with no fewer than five CBEs, at the expense of people with a more recent and intimate knowledge and experience of working at the ‘sharp end’ of local voluntary action; those with a wider view of civil society and a perspective on voluntary organisations other than those whose primary purpose is service provision.

"It would appear that the ability of the panel to think beyond the assumption that the interests and aims of the government and the voluntary sector are fundamentally the same is limited."

The coalition also says: "We believe that the analysis presented in the panel’s consultation document seriously underestimates both the seriousness and the extent of the current threat to the sector’s independence and, indeed, the serious damage that has already been done to the sector by government and state policy and practice.

"Voluntary organisations have lost their independence of thought and action because successive governments have increasingly viewed them as instruments for achieving their policy objectives and have devoted themselves to ensuring that voluntary organisations are fit for that purpose."

The panel is chaired by Dame Anne Owers, chair of Christian Aid and former Chief Inspector of Prisons. Other members include Nicholas Deakin, who chaired the influential Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector, which reported in 1996; Andrew Hind, former chief executive of the Charity Commission; and Lord Hodgson, president of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and chair of the Big Society Deregulation Task Force.

Owers told Third Sector there were no plans to alter the panel’s composition in light of the criticism, but that listening to front-line groups would be a key part of the panel’s work. The panel would discuss the NCIA’s response and the other responses at a meeting later this month, she added.

"The NCIA’s response raises interesting points and the panel will be having useful and interesting conversations about what independence is and how it can be protected," she said.

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