The Charity Commission should consider drawing up a "concordat" to ensure that charities can continue to comment freely on the policies of government departments that contract them to deliver public services, according to the veteran Labour MP for Birkenhead, Frank Field.
In a lecture at the commission’s annual meeting yesterday, attended by 150 people, Field said there had been a change in the country’s political culture that potentially constrained the freedom of service-delivering charities to monitor how government was performing.
He said the wish to control debate was now so strong that it was seen as a legitimate objective by governments of all parties. "So the question I pose is: is the attack-dog system, developed and used so effectively to control MPs who were deemed to have ‘lost the plot’, now being applied more generally in the public square?
"And is it applied specifically to those who are providers of what were once government services, and whose delivery of these services would have been watched over by the very charities that now receive massive injections of government funds?
"Is this an area that the charity providers are now finding difficult to negotiate? Do they have the information that they would now like to put into the public domain, which they find that they are either legally restricted from doing so or fear government reprisals should they so do?
"The fear of reprisals may of course be ungrounded, but ungrounded fears can have an important effect on behaviour. So I pose a question to the Charity Commission. Is this an issue on which they have picked up vibes? If it is, might they at some stage outline politically how they intend to take this issue forward? An off-the-record meeting with some of these major providers could form a useful first step."
The commission might then wish to consider whether there was a need for a new concordat between government and service-delivering charities, he said. "If there is, what should be the duties and rights of charities operating in these circumstances? And what should be the duties and rights of the government?"
Field suggested that the commission could consider how it could foster a stronger giving culture, including an audit on whether the establishment of new foundations matched the extent of new wealth created in recent years. He said: "Might the commission consider, with the help of some of the new financial elite who have established foundations, how their colleagues might be encouraged to follow their lead?"
He also suggested that the commission could be financed partly by the top-slicing of a small percentage of the £4bn charities received in tax concessions each year, which would not increase the amount of public funds given to the sector. The full text of Field’s lecture is available here.