Charities should not 'stick to their knitting', culture secretary says

But Matt Hancock also says voluntary sector organisations should not spend their time pursuing 'ideological crusades against the government'

Matt Hancock, the culture secretary
Matt Hancock, the culture secretary

Charities should not "stick to their knitting" but nor should they spend their time pursuing "ideological crusades against the government", Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said today.

Speaking at an event in Westminster this morning to lay out the government's vision for its forthcoming civil society strategy, Hancock said he wanted "civil society to recover its confidence to speak into our public life".

He said that the greatest social and political changes in history had come about because independent people formed associations to press for change.

"It’s true that, like most ministers, I don’t want charities spending their time – or even taxpayers’ money – pursuing a narrow ideological or political crusade against the government," he said. "That would be wrong. It’s natural for me to say that. But I don’t think you should stick to your knitting either – if indeed any of you know how to knit."

The phrase has been commonly used in the sector since 2014 when Brooks Newmark, charities minister at the time, said charities should be "sticking to their knitting" and stay out of the realm of politics.

Civil society organisations had the right to campaign and to press for change, said Hancock, but if civil society was entitled to its views, "so too is government".

He said the sector needed clarity on what "government wants to do, and how we intend to work with you. And that is what the civil society strategy will set out."

Hanock said he wanted to develop a more sustainable operating model for civil society organisations and the new strategy would help charities and community groups to become "better capitalised and more resilient".

He added that action was required to help people take back control, not just of our national borders or our global trade, "but of their own communities".

But he said it was government’s role "to lead and to enable, not to supplant the natural functions of society".

"Our role in government is to boost growth, enterprise and responsibility," he said.

Hancock added that business had a greater role to play in civil society. "We need business to adapt to a new, more empowered, more values-driven age," he said. "This is how we will save capitalism from itself."

He also addressed the issue of public funding, saying that he did not believe government spent nearly enough "on the small or local organisations – whether for or not-for profit - which are often the best people to deliver a local service".

In some markets, he said, 60 per cent of public procurement went to just five large companies, and he wanted to see a far more "plural supply of public services – with a lot more mutuals and other value-adding innovations".

Hancock said he wanted to see "more effective coordination of different public funding streams, and especially the streams that flow directly into local places". He added that conversations were under way across Whitehall to make this happen.

He said government was looking to see whether it could deliver a new era of grants without sacrificing the efficiency and focus on outcomes that contracts were designed to achieve.

Also speaking at the event, Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, raised the issue of reforming the lobbying act if government was committed to civil society organisations campaigning for change.

But Tracey Crouch, the charities minister, said in response that the creation of the act was changing the way government departments developed policy, reducing the need for lobbying.

"We proactively seek people’s views on regulation and legislation before we get to the point of putting it in front of parliament," she said. 

Crouch added that she had been working with the Electoral Commission to try to provide practical guidance to charities on how they could lobby. 

The government's consultation on its civil society strategy is due to close at 9am on Tuesday. 

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