Retaining an independent voice as a voluntary sector organisation needs maturity and resilience, and can feel uncomfortable, the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector has heard.
The panel, which is producing the last of four annual assessments of the voluntary sector’s independence, was hearing evidence in London yesterday from four organisations.
Chris Mould, chair of the poverty and exclusion charity the Trussell Trust, said that the adversarial nature of responding to criticism from a public figure "is uncomfortable, but you’ve got to do it".
The trust has faced criticism in recent months, some from politicians accusing it of scaremongering about the level of food poverty in the UK. He said of responding to such criticism: "It’s resource-heavy, it’s personally uncomfortable, but you have to push back if it’s not true."
Mould said that a commitment to professionalism and high standards within the charity and his own background in government and public services had helped the organisation to retain an independent voice. "When we’re challenged, we’re able to push back because we’ve got that confidence," he said.
Blanche Jones, campaigns director at the online campaigning platform 38 Degrees, told the panel that it was difficult to foster the right relationship between civil society and the state, and that it required "resilience on both sides".
Jones said: "We have to work out how to work with government and also criticise it."
She said criticism by MPs and others of the methods used by 38 Degrees was disappointing. In January, Sir Peter Bottomley, a Conservative MP, said the organisation’s tactics were "stupid" and counter-productive, sparking an angry backlash of comments on thirdsector.co.uk.
John Kerridge, assistant director of communities and commissioning at Lambeth Council in London, said that "a maturity that has to be learnt" was required for this kind of critical friendship to work.
"At Lambeth, we embrace the voluntary sector," he said. While he was personally at ease with the strong voice of the voluntary sector, said Kerridge, the same was not necessarily always true of elected councillors. "I’m sure they are concerned; I’m sure some of them do get frightened," he said.
According to Kerridge, local councillors tended to be more understanding of the need for independence than national politicians.
Also giving evidence was Caitlin Devereux, a researcher on the voluntary sector at the think tank the Centre for Social Justice. She said the independence of the voluntary sector revolved around "three Rs": its ability to reach more people, form stronger relationships with individuals and take more risks than the state.
"I think independence really feeds into all of these," she said. "I think one of the reasons people trust charities is that they are independent."
The panel will meet once more this year and plans to produce its final report in January.