Editorial: A longer look at independence

A full examination of the sector's role by the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector would be welcome, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Given the torrid time the sector has gone through in the past year, it's no great surprise this week that the third annual assessment of the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector makes gloomy reading.

There have been no improvements in any of the six challenges to independence it identified last year, and in two of them it says there has been a marked deterioration.

The first of these is "threats to independence and voice"; the second is "lack of consultation over vital funding and policy issues". Both have got worse mainly because some ministers have increasingly shed their inhibitions about attacking and trying to rein in charities that question their policies.

The panel hopes 2014 will bring a step change in how the sector's independence is valued and protected. But it's probably unrealistic to think things are likely to improve much this side of next year's general election.

More promising for the longer term is the panel's proposal to start a debate on a new settlement between the sector and key stakeholders that would include a strong, shared understanding of the importance of its independence. This would ideally be more than just an attempt to redress perceived recent wrongs so that business can continue as heretofore. We've reached the point where more fundamental issues need to be tackled about the definition, functions and privileges of charities in today's society.

One such issue has been raised in the recent call by the chair of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, for a debate about whether there should be a distinction between charities that are "truly voluntary" and those that deliver government services. The panel disagrees with Shawcross, saying independence of purpose, voice and action are what matter, not the source of funding. But it shares his concern about the voluntary sector being seen as interchangeable with the private and public sectors.

This last point is the crux of the matter, and a full public examination of the kind the panel seems to have in mind is long overdue.

- Read our analysis on the latest report

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