News analysis: Compact reality belies the rhetoric

Progress on the Compact is patchy at best, the Commission for the Compact has found.

Ken Livingstone
Ken Livingstone

Nine days ago, Ken Livingstone took time out from discussing the police and London's creaky transport system to talk about the rather less politically explosive subject of the Compact.

The London mayor joined other senior public sector figures, including third sector minister Phil Hope, at a reaffirmation of support for the London Compact, which was first signed in 2003.

Livingstone lauded the Compact, which outlines how voluntary and public sector organisations should behave towards each other, for everything from improving public services to lowering the capital's murder rate. Hope and other senior public sector figures joined the chorus of praise.

But in the High Court the next day, Age Concern South Lakeland accused Cumbria County Council of acting unlawfully by running a consultation that did not adhere to the Compact.

Breach of principles

On the same day, the Commission for the Compact published a report showing how Government grants programmes often breach Compact principles. It revealed that of 41 grants programmes since 2005, only 22 had followed ministers' urgings to make three-year funding the norm, 16 accepted full cost recovery and 33 paid in advance.

Considering it will soon be a decade since former prime minister Tony Blair said the Government would abide by the Compact, some of the findings were disturbing.

The Home Office's Connecting Communities Plus scheme, which gives grants to community cohesion schemes, funds for less than a year. The Department for Transport's Road Safety Grant Challenge pays for one year, doesn't offer full cost recovery or guarantee advance payment and gives little feedback on funding decisions. Supporting People does not follow voluntary sector policies on full cost recovery. Progress on the Compact, the commission concluded, was patchy.

All this activity came during Compact Week, which adopted the theme 'What has the Compact ever done for us?' Compact Voice, a network of 300 local voluntary sector representatives that organised the week, claimed the nation was "gripped by Compact fever". Not everyone is so sure.

"There is no awareness of it in North Yorkshire," says Keith Williams, social enterprise administrator for the North Yorkshire Forum for Voluntary Organisations. He says councils regard voluntary organisations as unreliable because they recruit volunteers, and the Compact has made little difference to their attitude. "The Compact is irrelevant, as far as I can see," he says.

The commission's research revealed how strongly councils are guided by their own needs; only eight of the 41 grants programmes it studied gave recipients a Compact-compliant, three-month lead-in time before the start of projects, and most of those that did were National Lottery grants, which do not conform to financial years in the way local authority budgets do. In town halls, working to budget deadlines appears to come before pleasing charities.

Kevin Curley, chief executive of Navca, the umbrella group for small charities, says the survey's findings are disappointing, and the picture is even bleaker at local government level. "Making grants Compact-compliant will be a key test for the Office of the Third Sector over the next three years," he says. "The Compact is a useful tool and provides a framework that local authorities and the sector can use, but when there are breaches it doesn't contain the means by which local authorities can be held to account."

The Commission for the Compact does not have a full-time chief executive or chair at present, and Curley says much will depend on the abilities of whoever is chosen and whether or not they are given more effective powers to bring recalcitrant local authorities into line.

Although progress on implementing the Compact sometimes seems tortuously slow, 99 per cent of local authority areas are covered by agreements. Last week, Suffolk showed its enthusiasm by launching a new Compact: representatives from the Government Office for the East of England, Suffolk Strategic Partnership, primary care trusts, Suffolk County Council, the Learning & Skills Council and voluntary organisations signed up in Bury St Edmunds.

Newcastle's Compact has been going for five years. Carole Howells, director of Newcastle CVS, says it has helped. "We already had a good relationship with the local authority," she says. "But it has made a difference."

Newcastle City Council, she says, now pays grants on time and gives proper notice of cuts. "I don't want to say things are perfect, but the Compact is a good way for trying to sort things out."

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