Please can we have a dialogue, not a boxing match?

Instead of fighting gagging restrictions from government, charities should seek to influence policy by ensuring their arguments are understood and articulated by a strong constituency of voters, writes Wally Harbert

The government believes that restricting public expenditure now is a price worth paying for sustained economic growth and that long-term prosperity depends on low taxation. It evokes the dark spectra of welfare dependency, like a menacing cloud, hanging over public morality.

As with most economic theories this has some validity but public services are being ravaged, health and care services face recurring crises and huge burdens are being placed on benefit recipients. As well as being one of the richest countries in the world, Britain is one of the most unequal. The government has made a choice but, like all governments, has convinced itself that there are no credible alternatives.

Public expenditure reductions invariably have knock-on effects so projected and reported savings are largely illusory. Benefit cuts add burdens to the NHS and the criminal justice system. Some cuts take years to work through the system by which time the problems they cause are a headache for future governments. The origins of the housing crisis go back a long way and will not be solved in the lifetime of one Parliament.

It is a sign of desperation that there have recently been three moves to curb the public voice of charities including a new law, a Cabinet Office directive and advice from the Charity Commission. Not since 1795 when Pitt the Younger persuaded Parliament to pass the Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act has a peacetime government shown such determination to restrict public criticism.

Many in the sector claim that cherished freedoms have been lost. Charities largely work with the victims of an unfair society. When confronted by obstacles some charity workers readily adopt the same cloak of victimhood they apply to their clients. This is unworthy of them.

Time and money spent by charities fighting gagging restrictions will not endear them to the public. Too often, their demands are seen as self-interest from well-healed charity leaders. The only effective way for charities to influence policy is to ensure their arguments are understood and articulated by a strong constituency of voters including their own staff, volunteers, service users and subscribers.

Although largely unspoken, high among the government’s social priorities is the need to combat extremism, radicalisation and terrorism. Vast disparities in wealth and income feed discontent, a sense of victimhood and social isolation. Tight budgets restrict opportunities to break down traditional barriers between different groups in society. Too many groups are fighting for their own interests and too few are fighting for the community as a whole. The third sector is a key part of the problem with some organisations working against social cohesion.

There are no easy solutions but there are no solutions at all unless a dialogue takes place between the government and sector representatives.  My only query is whether the third sector will be innovative enough to field a team that is truly representative of the sector rather than one that represents its philanthropic past which, arguably, created some of the present problems.

Wally Harbert has worked in local government and in the third sector

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