“We have to look at how to safeguard your ability to speak out without affecting your ability to raise funds,” Gordon Brown told a voluntary sector audience in London. “I will defend your right to campaign, irrespective of funding.”
He also reaffirmed his commitment to three-year funding as the norm for the voluntary sector, saying that at present 75 per cent of small organisations received funding for only three months at a time.
“We need to find better ways of financing innovation,” he said. “That’s why the idea of a social investment bank is being promoted, and I hope we will soon announce the basis for it, which will facilitate long-term funding to take forward innovation.”
The Prime Minister also said he wanted better funding for training in the management of volunteers, that consideration should be given to allowing charities to give talks in schools and that local authorities should have a duty to listen to voluntary organisations, as proposed in the local government white paper.
He was responding to questions after his first speech of the new political season, in which he called for a new, inclusive form of government and announced that two Conservative MPs and one Liberal Democrat MP will join his advisory groups on security, children’s policy and planning.
‘A new kind of politics’
‘Citizens juries’ would be held on children, crime and health, he announced, and a ‘citizen’s summit’ would formulate a statement of values that would feed in to a British Bill of Rights and a constitutional reform bill. He also announced a Speaker’s Conference at which all political parties could discuss electoral registration, weekend voting and representation in the Commons of women and ethnic minorities.
A new kind of politics was needed, he said, whereby people co-operated across party lines to “do what is right in the British interest and move from common ground to the higher ground of each doing what we can to advance our country’s best interests and ideals”.
He added: “The voluntary and community sector understands these principles better than anyone. You are putting them into practice every day. You share our commitment to changing society for the better.”
The speech, hosted by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, was widely interpreted as a bid for wider, cross-party support in advance of an early General Election, either in the autumn or the spring.
Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, said he thought the Prime Minister was shifting the ground of debate about the sector. “Yes, we’re interested in delivering services, but this gets into the wider questions about civil society and shaping public policy through citizens’ juries and a citizens’ commission,” he said.
“Let’s hope the sector’s up to this – they’re going to have to ensure that they adequately reflect the needs of their users. And being in a big tent can stifle dissent and debate. But I think the Prime Minister understands the nature of dissent, and that we’re partly inside and partly outside.”
Stephen Bubb, head of chief executives group Acevo, welcomed the renewed commitment to stable funding, to the social enterprise bank and to advocacy and campaigning. “It’s all very well to talk of engagement, but funding is the core of effectiveness,” he said. “You won’t get engagement unless you have strongly funded organisations.
“The fact he made this keynote speech here shows he understands the power of the sector. All the parties are deeply interested in the voluntary sector – this is a huge opportunity, and if we don’t grasp it with open hands we’re crazy.”
John Low, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation, said he was disappointed that the event was more a platform for announcing policy than addressing the sector. “We were the foil rather than the substance,” he said.
Low said a planned reference to Gift Aid had been removed from the speech, and he would have liked more detail about how the social investment bank would actually work. “Where’s the beef?” he asked.
The Prime Minister did not seem, he said, to appreciate fully that people were getting more from representation by charities than from the political process, and that governments should listen more to charities.