Theresa May’s vision for a "shared society" will fail unless the relationship between charities and the government is improved, according to the think tank Civil Exchange.
In a report released today called Shared Society? The Independence of the Voluntary Sector in 2017, the think tank says the voluntary sector has been undermined by various government policies that have made charities less likely to speak out and less able to intervene in public policy.
Referring to speeches made by May since she became Prime Minister last year, the report, which is based on the views of numerous senior figures in the charity sector, makes five recommendations to achieve the government’s aims of a shared society.
The proposals include making a clear statement about charities’ important role in developing policies and services, giving charities "a genuine seat at the table", both nationally and locally, in policy and service design, and ensuring the sector has affordable access to the courts system.
The report also calls for effective funding for charities and an effective and properly funded Compact agreement with the voluntary sector.
David Cameron’s big society project is also criticised in the report, which says the policy "failed to deliver" and warns that the shared society agenda risks meeting a similar fate without committing to reform.
The report highlights recent measures such as the lobbying act, gagging clauses in public sector contracts, the announcement of the "no advocacy" clause in grant agreements and "restrictive" Charity Commission guidance prior to the EU referendum as examples of how charities’ ability to speak out has been hindered.
It says that this "has not just created a negative climate and concrete barriers to the expression of that voice, but also led to a profound muddiness about what constitutes legitimate campaigning among all concerned".
The report argues that Brexit could provide an opportunity for the government to reset its relationship with the voluntary sector.
Caroline Slocock, director of Civil Exchange, said in a statement: "The Brexit watershed could herald a significant shift: a chance for the voluntary sector and government to work together to give more power to those in society who currently have little influence over – or trust in – government as it runs now, but only if government learns critical lessons from the failed big society initiative.
"The evidence so far is not promising and, as our latest report clearly shows, the independence of the voluntary sector, which must lie at the heart of a truly shared society, continues to be under serious and growing threat, despite some positive developments over the past 12 months."
However, in a blog post published this morning, Karl Wilding, director of public policy and volunteering at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, criticised the report for painting a "glum" picture of the voluntary sector. "I am moved to suggest that it [the report] is unduly pessimistic," he said. "In an assessment of the voluntary sector’s independence in 2017, the author argues that things have worsened since their 2015 report and that threats to our independence have worsened considerably."
He said the sector had to address some challenges, and "maybe one of them is to stop telling ourselves that everything is getting worse".