This article has been clarified. See final paragraph
Government should do more to make procurement and tendering processes simpler for small charities, and needs to recognise and value the role of these charities, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Civil Society and Volunteering heard yesterday.
The APPG, which is coordinated by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and co-chaired by Baroness Pitkeathley, a Labour peer, and Susan Elan Jones, Labour MP for Clwyd South, heard from two representatives of the small charity sector, and from one charity and a social enterprise.
Asked by Third Sector what he hoped to see in political parties’ general election manifestos, Simon Hebditch, chair of the Small Charities Coalition, said: "I’d like to see a real commitment to the importance of the sector as a whole." He said that politicians that wanted to reshape public services would do well to recognise the role small charities could play in this. "Parties have got to see that it meets their needs and commitment as well," he said.
Pitkeathley agreed, saying government should recognise that investing in the capability of small charities in the short term would save money in the long term.
Yvonne Farquharson, managing director of Breathe Arts Health Research, a not-for-profit social enterprise that designs new approaches to healthcare using the arts, told the meeting that there should be "more recognition in terms of the different structures that can support the public sector".
Pauline Broomhead, chief executive of the Foundation for Social Improvement, which supports and advocates for small charities, said government should "make sure that the small charities sector has a voice". Broomhead presented figures from two FSI reports produced last year, including its Small Charity Index, which suggested charities were having to cope with rising demand and a decline in resources.
Nigel Scott-Dickeson, chief executive of the West Sussex-based children’s charity the Springboard Project, said government should "recognise the role of the small charities sector – we’ve a tremendous cohort of skills and ability".
Scott-Dickeson said that tendering for local government work was becoming increasingly complex. "We don’t have contracts any more; we have something called frameworks, which makes it even more interesting," he said. He said that some public bodies did not understand smaller-scale projects and "don’t know how to commission small charities – they don’t think you can get anything done with less than £10,000".
He said bidding for contracts from different local authorities, which might have very different requirements, was frustraing. "We need some sort of conformity," he said.
Farquharson said she had the same experience when working with NHS clinical commissioning groups – any two CCGs might require very different documentation and evidence. She said that demonstrating the impact of previous work with another CCG would only go so far.
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots, a Conservative peer, said he had raised a proposal in a parliamentary debate the previous week that would help deal with this situation. Speaking in the committee debating the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, he had cited the example of a charity that had to complete a 68-page document when tendering for a £10,000 contract to run after-school clubs, and said in his research he had been sent several hundred similar examples of excessive requirements.
"Tender documents should be proportionate to the value of the contract being awarded," he had told the committee. "Too often, as in the example that I have given, very small contracts have very large tender documents attached to them." He also suggested the removal of the pre-qualification questionnaire requirement for certain contracts, and changes to the way contracts were monitored.
Hodgson’s amendments to the bill were not taken up, although Baroness Neville-Rolfe, parliamentary under-secretary for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, had told the committee that the bill would deliver simpler procurement. She said: "Like my noble friend Lord Hodgson, we would like to see better, simpler documentation that makes contracts more accessible to small business and voluntary organisations."
This article was edited on 30 January 2015. The reference to Breathe Arts Health Research was changed to refer to it as a not-for-profit social enterprise, rather than a non-charitable social enterprise