News analysis: The Compact at the crossroads

As the Compact enters a new era, the sector is still divided on the issue of its legal status.

Massie (left) and Clark (right) Credit: Newscast
Massie (left) and Clark (right) Credit: Newscast

Ever since the Compact was launched 10 years ago, some people have argued that it would never be effective until it was reinforced with statutory powers. The cry has become a clamour in recent months, amid a growing sense that the Government introduced the agreement but has too often failed to abide by it.

The Office of the Third Sector has pledged to reconsider the Compact's voluntary status as part of its review of the Commission for the Compact next year. But would statutory powers make a difference, and how would they work?

Sir Bert Massie sat firmly on the fence when he was appointed as Commissioner for the Compact in March (Third Sector, 19 March). "I haven't made up my mind on it yet," he said. But his neutral position represents a step away from his predecessor, John Stoker, who was sceptical about statutory powers.

Chief executives body Acevo has led the call for change. "I'm surprised we haven't had more support on this from the sector in the past, but we are getting it now," says Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the organisation. "Frankly, there is such cynicism among chief executives about the Compact that statutory powers are the only way of getting their commitment back."

The Conservative Party has also been striking an increasingly belligerent note. Its green paper on the voluntary sector, due out this autumn, is expected to call for new powers. "The Compact appears to be in a state of collapse," says shadow charities minister Greg Clark. "The time has come for it to be overhauled and made to bite."

Some people in the voluntary sector disagree, however. Saskia Daggett, Compact manager for Compact Voice, which represents the voluntary sector on Compact issues, says the current document, along with initiatives such as the parliamentary ombudsman and public law procedures, provides sufficient mechanisms to challenge poor government practice.

"What we have now is a neutral agreement based on the principles of good partnership and good practice," she says. "If you give the Compact a legal status, you lose all that. It becomes yet another part of the regulatory system."

But she appears to be swimming against the tide. In March, Stuart Etherington, chief executive of umbrella body the NCVO, said statutory powers were inevitable and predicted that they would come into force within two years (Third Sector, 26 March). His organisation appears to be accepting change reluctantly. "The NCVO would prefer to operate in a world where the sector works in partnership with the Government," says Ann Blackmore, head of policy. "It's a mutual understanding and agreement."

Ben Wittenberg, director of policy and research at the Directory of Social Change, says it is "dangerous and simplistic" to think statutory powers will improve matters. "The biggest reason the Compact hasn't taken off is that it's the wrong tool for what needs to happen," he says. It will only work, he claims, as part of a range of measures designed to improve cross-sector relations.

Richard Corden, interim chief executive at the Commission for the Compact, says there are two options for statutory powers: either the Compact itself gets legal backing, which would require legislation, or the commission is given legal powers to investigate bad practice. This is where things get tricky: such powers would not necessarily include enforcement or regulation, which some fear would be too heavy-handed.

One option would be to give the Commissioner for the Compact similar powers to those conferred on the Children's Commissioner for England, who has no enforcement powers but can investigate and report to the Government, which is obliged to respond. This would put the Compact higher up in ministers' in-trays; but they would not have to act on the commissioner's advice.

The Commission for the Compact plans to publish a layperson's guide to the Compact this year, which will attempt to clarify the document's current legal status - not easy, considering it has rarely been tested in law. It is written in the national Compact that it is "not legally binding", but when a service user of Age Concern South Lakeside brought a judicial review against Cumbria County Council last year for breaching the Compact, a High Court judge said the document was "more than a wish list; it is a commitment of intent".

An Office of the Third Sector spokesman says statutory powers remain an option. He adds: "It would be premature to look at introducing legislation before properly considering what the problems are and how those can best be solved."

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