Political instability means 'charities must focus on the short term'

Andrew O'Brien of the Charity Finance Group tells an NPC round-table event that the sector should think in two or three-year periods

Parliament: political instability rules, says O'Brien
Parliament: political instability rules, says O'Brien

The charity sector is failing to connect with MPs and needs to adjust to a more unstable political environment with a greater focus on the short term and on Brexit, charity leaders have said.

At a round-table event hosted by the think tank New Philanthropy Capital today, attendees discussed how charities could make their case in a more polarised political landscape after last year’s EU referendum and this year’s recent general election.

Andrew O’Brien, head of policy and engagement at the Charity Finance Group, said that, given the current political instability in the country, charities should be more concerned with short-term fixes that get left behind because "we think we should be focusing on the long term".

He said: "At the moment I don’t see any party thinking it will win a big majority. There’s not really much political stability for long-term thinking.

"We have to adjust our own time horizons and think in two to three-year periods, because MPs are probably living hand-to-mouth at the moment in terms of their political capital."

Dan Corry, chief executive of NPC, said the charity sector needed to be "more pointed, a bit more specific" when arguing its case.

"This is a congested world at the minute, where people are very confused," he said. "Maybe our asks are almost not radical enough at the moment, which is why we are not listened to."

Among Corry’s proposals were a civil society representative in the Cabinet, a minimum spending commitment from government similar to the 0.7 per cent guarantee for international development, and a "civil society test" where government ideas would be put through a "civil society filter" to see if it was something the voluntary sector could carry out instead.

"I suspect that, if you’d done that, you wouldn’t have had the National Citizen Service created the way it is," Corry said. "If the government had said it wanted all children to be doing this, and the first question was ‘can we use existing civil society to do it’, the answer would have been ‘yes’. It would probably have been more cost-effective."

Corry said he would like to see a new civil society improvement agency introduced to free the Charity Commission to "do the day job" and focus on its regulatory role, allowing other bodies to promote the sector and to advocate on its behalf.

Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, said he did not think that charity sector bodies, such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations or the charity chief executives body Acevo, were doing enough work with MPs to explain the charity sector to them.

"Who is running a programme to twin new MPs with community organisations or national charities?" Hale asked. "We haven’t developed the argument, we haven’t proselytised it and we’re not working it.

"I don’t see who is doing this work. I don’t know who’s testing what phrases will work with MPs. I am sure there are loads of programmes our there now twinning new MPs with science and industry. Who is explaining the voluntary sector to them?"

Hale said the sector did not have an argument that worked for the current government, "which is why they don’t pay us any attention".

Brexit and links with government dominated the discussion, with views expressed that Brexit both dominated the political agenda at central government level and also provided opportunities to engage with MPs who were not at the heart of the debate over the UK’s future relationship with Europe.

There was also debate on whether the sector would do better by engaging with metropolitan mayors or devolved assemblies, or whether central government’s control over budgets and the economy made it more important to engage with MPs.

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