Editorial: What to think of Duncan Smith's agenda?

Stephen Cook, editor

Iain Duncan Smith made no bones about the fact that he wanted to be controversial in his lecture at our awards ceremony for Britain's Most Admired Charities last week. He certainly succeeded: while a few guests found it hard to be in the same room afterwards, others rushed up to him to say they agreed with every word. The majority had a mixed reaction, assenting to some points but not others.

Duncan Smith's central thrust was that there is "an increasingly close relationship between big charity and government" and "a striking uniformity of world view in big charity". His challenge was that larger charities should learn from the experience of other countries and from successful smaller charities that think outside the box.

With public funds now providing 37 per cent of the voluntary sector's income, the question of independence from government is bound to weigh heavily on its collective mind. Some fear charities could become agents of the state, while others insist they can work for the state without compromising themselves. The arguments have different emphases in almost every case, and it's hard to generalise. But Duncan Smith has put his finger on a sensitive spot, over which the arguments will continue to ebb and flow.

On uniformity of world view, he said it's hard to find big children's charities that support marriage, development charities that promote abstinence to combat Aids or drugs charities that promote kicking the habit completely.

Perhaps that's because experience shows that such strategies run against the grain of human behaviour in today's society and are usually doomed to failure. There will always be projects, often in a religious context, that manage to swim against the tide. But can they really be used as a wider template?

Duncan Smith encouraged donors to think more carefully about their donations and argued that this could be made easier by greater accountability and transparency among charities. Surveys show a certain wariness from the public about how their donations are used, so more encouragement for the nascent trend towards greater openness is definitely welcome.

As for the IDS proposal for 'stakeholder-directed funding', which would give users and local people a say in which voluntary bodies receive public funding, the jury stays out. When the joint funding inquiry by his Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies puts some flesh on the bones, we'll be in a better position to decide.

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