Ben Hughes: A bizarre decision by Angela Smith

The third sector minister's scrapping of the Campaigning Research Fund compromises the Government's own commitment to social justice, says the chief executive of community organisation membership group Bassac

Ben Hughes
Ben Hughes

Our politicians have brought parliamentary politics into disrepute and contributed to the growing apathy about political engagement. Against this backdrop, the Government's decision to scrap the Campaigning Research Fund strikes me as bizarre. Campaigning and advocacy will be vital in our efforts to rebuild a vibrant democracy and a healthy civil society.

From their position of independence, Bassac's members have a long and rich history of campaigning - from lobbying for an end to appalling housing conditions to calling for the extension of the school leaving age and later being among the first to call for action on fuel poverty. Their work is driven by a belief in social justice. Campaigning, advocating and agitating remain key to addressing the inequality gap in our society - a gap that is still far too large.

They are at the heart of their communities, so they know how best to improve employment, housing and health for some of the most marginalised people in society. The Government's neighbourhood renewal agenda sought to narrow the inequality gap on these issues, but broadly failed because it was translated into initiatives that were supply-led and symptom-focused.

We think the Government's decision to withdraw the Campaigning Research Fund compromises the work that is being done towards achieving social justice within excluded communities - communities that are untouched by day-to-day politics and are ill-equipped to raise their voices.

Being able to speak out in an informed, organised way is a vital skill. Communities that can speak up for their rights are able to express their views to local councils and shape public services through co-design, deciding local delivery priorities led by community planning. Participation in school governing bodies, tenants associations and residents groups builds stronger communities.

Our extensive evidence shows that the ability of individuals and organised groups to speak out is central to increasing their opportunities and aspirations. Realising these opportunities allows them to play a full role in civil life. Through expressing their views and seeing change result from that process, individuals also gain skills and confidence.

Angela Smith's decision flies in the face of the progress we have made. The Government's decision not only breaches the Compact, but also paves the way for others to follow suit at a time when cost-cutting is top of the agenda. There's a real danger that this fundamental, yet very fragile ‘public service', which is necessarily challenging and uncomfortable for public bodies at times, could be particularly vulnerable to cuts. But if we are to rebuild our democracy, it is vital that this is an area for investment.

Campaigning is not always about opposing or preventing things. It can also be about identifying positive views within a community and expressing these through collective action. It is vital for the health of our civil society that people also come together to celebrate the progress or achievements their communities have made.

The Campaigning Research Programme offered an innovative approach to re-engaging disempowered communities and inspiring a new sense of democracy. Now more than ever, the decision to scrap this funding is something we should all be worried about.

Ben Hughes is chief executive of the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres, or Bassac

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