Andy Hillier: The Conservatives must rediscover their charitable heart

There's too much name-calling and asserting of control, writes the editor of Third Sector

Andy Hillier
Andy Hillier

The Labour Party would have you believe that it is the party of the people and the great supporter of the charity sector. In the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown era, unquantifiable sums of money were handed out to charities in the form of grants and contracts. Some good was achieved, but it was a policy that could never be sustained in tougher economic times.

Contrast that with Margaret Thatcher’s latter years of rule and John Major’s time in power. These years saw the creation of Gift Aid, payroll giving and the National Lottery. None is perfect but, through changing economic winds, all have stood the test of time and provide a sustainable source of income for charities.

But where has this spirit of invention and creativity gone among the Conservative ranks?

Admittedly, the Dormant Assets Commission has been set up, with some hoping it can raise up to £2bn for good causes. But the proposal seems more like an extension of the decade-old dormant bank account scheme, rather than the result of any radical new thinking.

Instead of creating clever financial solutions that support charities, the Conservative Party has in recent years spent a great deal of time bickering with them and has become obsessed with asserting control.

The past week has seen two cases in point. First came the opinion piece by Rob Wilson, the former charities minister, in The Daily Telegraph. He argued, among many other points, that the charity sector was too left-wing and large charities such Oxfam should refrain from airing views that might see them accused of political bias.

Second came the long-awaited announcement of the government’s preferred candidate to be the next chair of the Charity Commission. Despite strong calls for the new chair to be politically neutral, the government has selected Baroness Tina Stowell, a former minister and a Conservative peer.

Stowell’s appointment has been greeted with begrudging acceptance by the sector. After all, she has a strong track record of standing up for equality and there's a sense that another appointment could have been worse. However, it is still true that this is a highly politicised decision and one that makes something of a mockery of the Charity Commission’s claim to be an "independent, non-ministerial government department". At least two of the government’s shortlisted candidates for the role had served as Conservative ministers, stacking the odds in favour of a Conservative-friendly appointment.

The charity sector’s situation has not been helped by a limp Labour Party. Over the past five years there has been a revolving door of shadow charities ministers, none of whom has stayed in post long enough to deliver a meaningful charity policy or truly hold their opposite number to account. Steve Reed, the current incumbent, was the most vocal opponent of Stowell’s proposed appointment last week, but his concerns were not echoed by the most senior figures within the party. The charity sector, it seems, remains way down the list of Labour’s political priorities.

So where does this leave charities now? The sector seems to be locked in an ongoing battle with the Conservatives, particularly those on the right of the party, and stuck in the middle are charity beneficiaries.

Part of the solution might lie with the civil society strategy that Tracey Crouch, the Minister for Civil Society, is currently drawing up. It might end some of the petty squabbles and help to find some common ground.

But there also needs to be some soul-searching among the Conservative Party faithful about whether they need to adjust their thinking. As Brexit has clearly demonstrated, the Conservatives are not a homogeneous mass and deep divisions lie within.

There are those in the party who strongly believe that charities should "stick to their knitting" – to borrow a well-used phrase – but there are also those who accept that the Conservatives must shake off the nasty party tag and deliver on the promise of creating a "shared society". Picking fights with international aid organisations simply does not help, nor does appointing political allies to key organisations such as the Charity Commission.

It’s time the modernisers within the party stepped up and started to articulate a new set of Conservative values, ones that rely less on petty name-calling and asserting control, and more on coming up with intelligent solutions to social problems. Then more charities might find themselves naturally aligned with the right.

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