Government must clarify distinction between state and charity, says Frank Prochaska

Oxford University historian tells Charity Commission's annual public meeting that charity independence has been eroded slowly since Victorian times

Frank Prochaska
Frank Prochaska

The government should clarify the boundary between state and charity in order to demonstrate the admiration it claims to have for the fundamental principles of charity, an academic has told the Charity Commission’s annual public meeting.

Frank Prochaska, a historian of modern Britain at the University of Oxford, said the independence and distinctness of charities from the state had been slowly eroded since the Victorian era.

"In an era of partnerships and public service contracts, the state and many voluntary bodies have become so intertwined that it is rather fanciful to think of them as representing two distinct sectors," he said in the meeting’s keynote speech in London yesterday.

He said that there was a much clearer distinction in the Victorian era because the state was smaller and was not expected to deliver services or to be involved with social issues. Throughout the 20th century, the government had been "increasingly drawn into the social arena", said Prochaska. It was in the post-war years, he said, that "do-gooder" became a term of abuse, something that "encapsulated the transformation of values that had taken place".

Prochaska cited section five of the Health Services Act 1980, which permitted hospitals to organise their own appeals, as crucial to the sector’s convergence with the state. "Giving what amounted to charitable status to statutory bodies stunned the charitable establishment," he said, noting that Sara Morrison, chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations at the time, said the act was "the most damaging blow suffered by the voluntary sector for many years".

He said that the existing contracting culture for public services had resulted in charities "swimming into the mouth of the Leviathan" by moving further from their roots and becoming less likely to be independent.

"The use of charities to do the government’s bidding has been criticised as a devolved form of government administration that turns the intermediary institutions of civil society into agencies of the state through contracts and financial control," Prochaska said.

However, some charity sector leaders, particularly those that supported Labour, were not minded to change this, he said.

"Talk about the big society or rolling back the state makes them nervous," he said. "They are content to act as welfare providers dependent on state grants and service contracts, which pays their salaries and keeps them in touch with national policy.

"Historically, it was not simply about the delivery of services to the needy, but also about civic participation, self-help and moral training. Recent government statements suggest they admire such principles.

"But if our politicians really believed in them, they would clarify the boundaries between the state and charity, would lessen the unnecessary regulations on those institutions that do not receive state assistance and would increase the tax incentives to giving."

But he said there was likely to be little support for such changes from politicians, "for it would reduce government revenue and control".

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