Analysis: 'The sector-to-state relationship is not in the best of places'

Sam Burne James examines the latest report from the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector

The panel's report
The panel's report

This week's report from the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector asks questions of the sector's relationship with Westminster and its ability to stick up for itself.

The main thrust of the report, the third of four annual assessments, is that the sector's independence is coming under increasing threat and that the government must - in the words of the panel's chair, Sir Roger Singleton - "act to demonstrate genuine commitment to an independent voluntary sector and rebuild trust".

The panel, which comprises voluntary sector experts including Nicholas Deakin, who chaired the Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector in the 1990s, and Sir Bert Massie, the former Commissioner for the Compact, found evidence of growing criticism by some politicians of charities' role as voices of communities. 

The report says that there is an increasingly expressed view that charities should simply deliver services rather than speak out against injustices. Consequently, charities are censoring themselves because they are afraid of losing government work or appearing to be too political, or because of gagging clauses in state contracts.

It says that there has been a reduction in government consultation periods, which means that voluntary sector organisations have insufficient time to respond to important questions. It also points to a lack of government compliance with the Compact, the agreement that sets out how public and voluntary sector organisations should treat each other.

The report also says the Charity Commission is "weak" and "ill-equipped to maintain public confidence that charities are pursuing an independent mission that is furthering the public good, and not state-sponsored or driven by private gain".

Singleton says the umbrella bodies Acevo, Navca and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations have done good work over the past year in providing a voice on issues such as the lobbying bill. 

But the report says that voluntary sector leaders could do more to challenge some of the negative views about the sector's policy and campaigning role, and to build a better understanding of why this is important.

Singleton hopes the report will act as a wake-up call for all concerned. "I am not naive enough to think that every recommendation will be met by the end of this year," he says. "But I think there will be a recognition by all parties that we're not in the best place in terms of the relationship between the state and the voluntary sector, and we need to improve that."

But Asheem Singh, director of policy at the chief executives body Acevo, is less downbeat about relations between charity and parliament. "I think there are indeed instances, points of combustion, where government has not worked well with the sector," he says. "But overall it's important not to be too negative - there are green shoots."

Lisa Nandy, shadow charities minister, says in response to the report that it is essential that charities stand together to defend their independence. 

"Charities have a duty to speak out for the most vulnerable, and politicians have a duty to hear that voice," she says.

A Cabinet Office spokesman says the report is "not representative of government policy", but adds: "We welcome the report's recognition that we are making it easier for charities and social enterprises to work with the state, so that more people can benefit from the trust and knowledge held by the sector."

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