Surveys continue to show depressingly low levels of awareness of the agreement and a perception that it does little to redress the imbalance of power between the sector and the public authorities that fund, commission and form partnerships with it. Its name is not widely recognised - even a man as attuned to public life as Sir Bert Massie joked when he became chair of the Commission for the Compact in March that he had wondered if it was something to do with powder puffs or lip gloss.
There are signs, however, that there might soon be real progress. Massie's arrival was followed recently by the appointment as chief executive of Richard Corden, who, as the civil servant responsible for handling the Charities Act 2006 in its passage through Parliament, has a well-developed sense of what is and is not possible in Whitehall and Westminster. In August, the Commission for the Compact issued a discussion document called Debating the Future of Compact: it is short, purposeful and well worth responding to before the deadline of 10 November. After that, the Government plans to hold a formal consultation and, politics permitting, the way forward will be clearer.
When Massie took over, he said he wanted to have a think before pronouncing on the question that has become most pressing recently: whether the Compact should be given the kind of statutory force that would oblige the backsliders to sit up and take notice. At a debate in Birmingham last week, he declared that his cogitation was complete and that he was coming out against the idea of giving the agreement statutory force. There could be no telling what might happen in Parliament to the necessary legislation, he pointed out, and, if a bill went through, its legal obligations could make life more rather than less difficult for both sides. This was an astute judgement, no doubt partly informed by the recent practical experience of Corden.
But there are other ways of using the law to promote the effectiveness and fairness of the Compact. One option put forward in the discussion document is legislation to convert the commission from a non-departmental public body answerable to ministers to a statutory body answerable to Parliament, and to expand its small, five-strong board of directors to include a wider range of interests. Under this option, the commission could be given powers to investigate the actions of organisations without their consent, requiring them to produce information and documents and ensuring that they respond to commission recommendations in a reasonable time. Massie talked last week about the model of the Children's Commissioner, who has powers to investigate matters of concern and report to Parliament, which has to respond.
This does seem like the most promising way forward. Most people with detailed experience of trying to make the Compact work have backed away from the idea of making the agreement itself enforceable, largely because that raises the spectre of bruising legal conflicts that might only make matters worse. Making the Commission for the Compact into a statutory body with significant powers of investigation could increase its clout and redress the imbalance of power without using out-and-out coercion.
- Stephen Cook, editor