State has unreasonable expectations of charity, RSA chief tells peers

Matthew Taylor tells the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities that government should have 'a slightly more intelligent conversation' with the sector and should not rush into regulation

Matthew Taylor
Matthew Taylor

The state has unreasonable expectations of the charity sector, members of the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities heard yesterday.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the arts charity the RSA, made the comments during an evidence session as part of the committee’s year-long investigation into the role of charities in civil society. He appeared as a witness alongside David Cutler, director of the grant-giver the Baring Foundation.

Taylor and Cutler were asked by the Conservative peer Lord Chadlington what the government could do to create an environment in which the charity sector could thrive, particularly focusing on the state’s attitude to the sector.

Taylor said: "I think generally speaking the relationship between the state and civil society breaks down because the state sets expectations that are unreasonable."

He said government and the sector needed to articulate clearly what was precious about charities and to be honest about the fact that this could create "a kind of messiness", particularly for campaigning charities that received public sector funding.

He said he was concerned that the government wanted to avoid situations in which charities funded by the public sector were able to campaign.

If the government recognised the value of the sector, it would have a "slightly more intelligent conversation" and be less likely to rush into regulation that might solve one problem by generating a bigger problem somewhere else, he said.

The crossbench peer Lord Bichard responded by saying: "I think what you were saying is that we too often talk about changing the culture and capacity of the voluntary sector, but actually what we need to be doing more of is changing the culture and capacity of the state and the way in which it relates to that sector – and that is what we have so often failed to do."

Taylor and Cutler agreed with the summary.

Answering Chadlington’s question, Cutler said that for the small charities that made up the vast majority of civil society organisations there should be no role for the state to play except getting out of the way.

He acknowledged there was a role for regulation to prevent abuse and fraud within the sector.

But he said: "It does seem to me concerning that we have become more and more regulated with greater attention to matters that did not used to be considered as within the remit of a regulator."

He said the prevailing attitude of the state did not feel like "one that wants to see civil society thrive or flourish – it feels quite threatening as an attitude".

The labour peer Baroness Pitkeathley, who chairs the committee, concluded the evidence session by asking the two witnesses what one recommendation the committee should make to help ensure the sustainability of the sector.

Cutler called for a return to the principles outlined in the compact, and Taylor said he would like to see it made easier for charities to reimburse trustees.

"We’d make governance a bit easier if we made it more possible for people of a working age to serve as trustees without having to ask an enormous favour of their employers," he said.

The committee’s next evidence session is expected to take place on 18 October.

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