Analysis: Victim Support takes on the government

The charity relies on public funding, but chief executive Javed Khan says it has very good reasons to speak out

Javed Khan, Victim Support
Javed Khan, Victim Support

Victim Support last week became the latest charity to mount a campaign against a key government reform when it publicly opposed the plan to hand commissioning of services for victims and witnesses of crime to 42 local police and crime commissioners, who will be elected in November.

Earlier this year the National Trust protested loudly against planning reform, and Mind's chief executive Paul Farmer resigned from a government panel over a policy he felt was damaging for people with mental health problems.

The difference between Victim Support and the other two charities is that it is almost entirely dependent on central government funding. But this has not deterred its chief executive, Javed Khan, from speaking out against the proposals from the Ministry of Justice. His opposition to the government's plans are supported by the NSPCC, which gets about 10 per cent of its funding from national or local government.

Khan says: "Eighty per cent of our funding comes from central government, so it is a very bold and brave step we have taken and not something many charities do. It is not something we have done before, but we have done it for very good reasons."

He doesn't expect the government to penalise the charity for the position it has taken, but some charity leaders believe that the state does sometimes punish charities that criticise it. Speaking at a fringe event at last year's Conservative Party conference, Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, said she had experienced a situation in which a politician indicated that the charity was going too far and would like it to hold back. "There is no financial threat," she said at the event. "It's just that if you don't, you won't be part of the circle that can exert influence."

A report in January by the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector said some organisations that rely on public funding are worried about challenging local or central government in case it brings reprisals. It said the fear of confronting government was heightened by politicians' criticism of charities that had spoken out.

Charities that provide services through tendered contracts, often with local authorities, sometimes censor themselves in order to avoid losing work, says Andy Benson, director of the National Coalition for Independent Action, which works with small voluntary groups. "Commissioning is the devil that has come among us in terms of sustainability, independence and autonomy of voluntary action," he says.

Charities at odds with government funders often try to sort things out behind the scenes, and it is hard for them to decide when to move from discreet lobbying to public criticism, according to sector policy experts. "It is very difficult to play both games - to be inside and close to all the people in government and also outside, ranting and raving," says Jay Kennedy, head of policy at the Directory of Social Change. "To some extent, if we are too close to government we can wind up becoming part of the problem."

But an apolitical campaign backed by good evidence of a real problem can win charities respect in circles of power, says Chloe Stables, parliamentary and media manager at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. She says: "We feel very strongly it is a right and almost a duty for organisations to speak out on behalf of their beneficiaries when they see something is wrong."

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