Civil Society Strategy is only the beginning, sector says

Sector groups have responded positively to the document, published today, but said there is more work to be done

Charity sector representatives have given the government’s new Civil Society Strategy a cautious welcome, but urged the government to ensure the strategy is only the beginning of a programme of reform.

The new strategy, published today by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, sets out a wide range of principles and initiatives that it says will shape the relationship between charities and government and underline the role that the charity sector plays in society.

But many charity sector representative bodies called for more detail on some of the strategy’s key proposals and said further work and funding were needed to make good on some of its commitments.

Caron Bradshaw, chief executive of the Charity Finance Group, said there were some positives in the strategy, but she was "disappointed that it doesn’t go further".

"We need to see cross-government support for the role the sector plays and appropriate investment if this is to avoid being just more warm words," Bradshaw said.

Peter Holbrook, chief executive of Social Enterprise UK, said that the strategy could be "a good springboard for social enterprise" and welcomed its ambition.

"We must turn that ambition into action," Holbrook said. "We cannot assume government will act on its own. Social enterprises and our supporters must keep up the pressure and hold government to account if we are to curate a fairer and more inclusive economy.

"There is a risk that the strategy will simply push the big issues facing society and the sector back into the long grass. We must make sure that this doesn’t become the reality."

There was also some criticism. Claire Godfrey, head of policy and campaigns at Bond, criticised the strategy’s failure to reform the lobbying act or stop inserting anti-advocacy clauses into grant agreements.

"We welcome the offer to work with civil society, regulators and other government departments to determine how to support advocacy and campaigning in the UK, but this is not enough," Godfrey said. "Real confidence will now have to come from actions rather than words."

She also warned of a "blurring of lines between grants and contracts" in the strategy, and said the two forms of funding should "stay distinct".

Peter Lewis, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising, said the strategy had some "commendable aspirations", but it "could have gone further in clearly setting the government’s role in promoting philanthropy and giving across all government departments and embedding an ambition to raise, celebrate and promote charitable giving more widely".

Lewis said: "The new strategy states that it is the start of a conversation, not the final word, and we will need continual engagement and dialogue with government and partners in the sector to drive meaningful change."

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said that the strategy was "an encouraging start", and he warmly welcomed the government’s aim to set out a "clear, cross-cutting approach to how it works with the voluntary sector".

But he added: "The real test will be embedding the strategy’s aspirations across government, ensuring expert charities are truly involved in policy-making and that procurement processes work as well for smaller charities as they do for big outsourcing companies."

Etherington said that the almost £2bn estimated to exist in dormant assets in the UK should be used to "start a real revolution in community ownership and participation", but "progress seems limited" on the use of these assets in the charity sector. He called for more detail.  

Paul Streets, chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales, said he was pleased the importance of small and local charities was understood by government, but the government needed to be "driving action on the ground" and providing resources.

"This strategy is a good starting point for the future of a stronger civil society, but with so many charities and communities under extreme pressure there is not a moment to lose," Streets said.

Baroness Stowell, chair of the Charity Commission, welcomed the strategy’s commitment to building a strong charity sector and said the commission’s own five-year plan would be launched later this year.

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