Stephen Cook: What does May herald for the sector?

Much is unclear, but the change of personnel might signal an end to the no-lobbying clause and the final throes of the big society, writes Third Sector's contributing editor

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

What will the May government mean for charities and the voluntary sector? It’s perhaps not the most pressing question facing the nation in the political roller-coaster ride we are on at the moment: attention has naturally been focused on the new Prime Minister’s wielding of the meat cleaver, her sometimes bewildering Cabinet appointments, the daunting arrangements for Brexit and whether the wide-ranging, one-nation ambitions she revealed outside 10 Downing Street are at all realistic.

We are also, at the time of writing, waiting for news of whether Rob Wilson will continue as charities minister or give way to someone else. Nonetheless, there are already a few indications of what the sector can expect in the coming months.

The first concerns the so-called no-lobbying clause, promulgated by Wilson and his boss in the Cabinet Office, Matthew Hancock, earlier in the year. This would have prevented charities that receive public funding from using any of it even to feed back some mild policy dissent to their paymasters, let alone embark on public lobbying campaigns. It was petty, illiberal and impractical, and was eventually "paused" when ministers realised that the judicial review threatened by the sector would be likely to succeed.

Hancock, who did not go down very well in the sector, appeared to be the driving force behind the proposal, and he has been replaced as Minister for the Cabinet Office by Ben Gummer, who looks like a genuinely one-nation Tory (and who, interestingly, declared before the referendum that leaving the EU "would be a victory for the kind of mean, nasty, pessimistic, downbeat and intolerant Britain that Mr Farage wants to create"). This change of personnel increases the odds that the no-lobbying clause is history. Who says the sector, which fought back convincingly on this one, can’t win battles with the government?

The second concerns the big society, which has shimmered before the sector’s eyes like a will o‘ the wisp since 2010. Everybody quite liked the concept, which was one of David Cameron’s trademarks, but no one was quite able to work out what it meant. Did it mean more resources for the voluntary sector, as some hoped, or less? Austerity dictated, of course, that there were fewer resources; and, apart from some little-used legislation on matters such as local planning and community assets, the big society has mostly meant what the former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg predicted it would be before he was in government – the "do-it-yourself society".

From the record, there is little to suggest that May is a big society fan. She made reference to it in a speech to the Police Federation soon after she became Home Secretary in the coalition government, but it sounded like box-ticking at a time when the new Cabinet was presumably under instructions to big up the big society. Since then there has been little evidence that it floats her boat; apart from anything else, she comes over as a politician more interested in brass tacks than high-falutin concepts floated by old Etonians. So with luck we will all be able to stop scratching our heads and agonising about the big society and the sector will, as it always has done, get on with trying to improve community life using whatever resources are available at any one time.

Otherwise, it largely seems a question of wait and see. May’s populist – almost socialist – Downing Street declaration touched on several areas where charities and the voluntary sector are centrally involved, such as improving the criminal justice system and tackling social and educational inequality. Many commentators are sceptical that she will really be able to tackle such huge tasks while also struggling to extract the UK from the EU and dealing with the other crises that will throw up, such as the future of Scotland and the renegotiation of trade agreements. Commitments to solving the knottiest problems of society tend to be hostages to fortune, as David Cameron discovered with his pledge to reduce immigration. But insofar as May’s ambitions are tackled by her government, the devil for the sector will be in the detail. Her populism is of the blue-collar variety, which does not always chime with the progressive, reformist priorities of many charities, and different ministers will have different views on the part the sector can play in their policy areas. We live in interesting times, and a lot is yet to become clear.

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