The importance of the sector within government is “buried away as a footnote” at the culture department, according to the chief executive of the RSPCA.
Chris Sherwood was speaking at an online conference held by the Westminster Policy Forum about the future of the voluntary sector.
He said the pandemic had exposed the weakness of the sector’s relationship with the government and described the government’s £750m pandemic-related emergency support package as “paltry” compared with those for other sectors.
“At worst, they see us as an annoyance that's too quick to criticise the failings of the government and as an easy target in their 'war on woke', and we're now buried away as a footnote in the culture department, rather than in the Cabinet Office.”
The Office for Civil Society sat in the Cabinet Office for 10 years after its creation as the Office of the Third Sector in 2006, until it was moved by then-Prime Minister Theresa May to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.
Three weeks after the government began its long-running reshuffle last month, Nigel Huddleston, the sport and tourism minister, had the charities brief added to his responsibilities.
“The energy and the importance of the third sector to government does look diminished, and its 'war on woke' is clearly going to be dialled out in the run-up to an election,” added Sherwood.
“No doubt a new chair of the Charity Commission will be appointed to reinforce this message, so it's going to get trickier for us as a sector, but we can't be complacent.”
Sherwood warned that the sector could not sit back and be seen as waiting for the election of a Labour government, which was not likely to be “sunshine and roses”, he said.
“There is quite an active debate on the left that is actually critical of charities for our role in providing outsourced public services, and too often on worse terms and conditions for workers than would be in the public sector.”
Whoever was in power, Sherwood said the sector could not go into another crisis like the pandemic with such a weak relationship with the government.
He praised infrastructure bodies, including Acevo and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which he said tried their “absolute best” to secure a good emergency package for the sector during the pandemic.
“But they were making the case for investing in the sector on really weak foundations and you can't repair a relationship in that amount of time. That was illustrated to me by the size of the bailout. It was paltry compared to other sectors.
“And when you actually analyse the £750m, quite a lot of it was ring-fenced for certain organisations or certain activities – it wasn't really a bailout designed for our sector.”
Irrespective of who was leading the government, Sherwood said the sector needed to work hard to show that it was central to “picking up the pieces” after the pandemic.
“But our role can and should go further than this, helping to renew civic engagement.
“Building a kinder society, and moving from an increasingly polarised, toxic debate to one that is inclusive, respectful and brings us together.
“The charity sector can be at the forefront of delivering a more compassionate society.”