Lord Wei accuses some charities of 'damaging civil society'

Government's big society adviser says the sector faces a huge transition from dependence on the state

Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament

Some charities are damaging civil society and must be prepared to undergo "a huge transition", according to the government's adviser on the big society, Lord Wei.

Speaking in a House of Lords debate last week, Wei said it was necessary to "guard against" this "small minority of charities" that contradicted the big society vision.

Some, he said, were "overly competitive, bureaucratic and unresponsive". Wei called the problem "big charity", but said it was "not so much about size but about how citizens are made to feel by interacting with these organisations".

He accused other charities of becoming "non-critical arms of government, either deliberately or unwittingly, through strings that come attached to contracts" and of "corroding individual responsibility, rather than helping to release people to become active citizens".

He said he was angry that the previous Labour government had "led thousands of charities up the garden path" by making them "so dependent on state funding that they are now overexposed". He warned that things had to change.

"A good number of voluntary organisations will find that they need to undergo a huge transition, just as will business and government, because we are now entering an era in which more power and control will shift to citizens and civil society, when demographic time-bombs and lifestyle changes are increasing expectations and demand, and when funds from government will be more limited," he warned.

Wei was one of a number of speakers in a six-hour debate moved by Conservative whip Lord Taylor of Holbeach on the role of charitable organisations in strengthening civil society.

Other contributions included:

  • Liberal Democrat peer Lord Phillips of Sudbury proposed removing the party whip from MPs on charity issues and giving them a free vote.
  • Baroness Smith of Basildon, the former third sector minister, said there was a tension between the Treasury view of charities as a "service delivery sector doing more for less, with payment by results, and the vision of the big society or a good society that is more about the wider engagement of all sections of society".
  • Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, the Conservative peer and president of the NCVO, called for the income threshold for charity registration to be raised from £5,000 to £10,000 in next year's review of the Charities Act.
  • Labour peer Baroness Pitkeathley accused the government of having "a suspicion of the infrastructure which currently exists to support the charitable sector".
  • Crossbench peer Lord Low of Dalston said he had detected a government "bias in favour of smaller, third sector and community organisations, as against the larger national charities".
  • Another crossbench peer, Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick, said the government should "enable and encourage a culture of merging which allows innovation and investment to flourish in order for the sector to keep its vibrancy and not its panic. The charitable sector should be a place where really big people can release their passions."

A transcript of the full debate is available here.

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