Opinion: Walking the tightrope of devolution

My week of drudgery is broken up by a visit to one of the devolved nations, where a partner organisation is on the verge of breaking its agreement with us. The volunteers, who have raised £750,000 in half the expected time from a very poor community, turn out in force and the partner organisation thinks again. I think how glad I am the volunteers are on my side: they have a strong sense of what is proper behaviour by public bodies.

I am there to put the UK point of view of the charity, which has made a big financial commitment to a project. I have to remember that I'm not in England. The institutions and the names are different, there is a different NHS in each of the four nations, the parliaments are different and their policies are diverging. It helps that I spent years in Scotland early in my career.

UK charities now have to ride four separate horses moving at different speeds and in different directions, often a painful experience. The pressure to nationalise the arms of the charities is stronger than ever (a recent proposal from Northern Ireland is that any UK charity fundraising there should have a trustee from the province - what price appointment on merit and avoidance of sectional interest?).

The options have ranged from complete separation, through national advisory boards and electoral colleges to devolution of policy and management.

The risk of any of these is high, even with careful preparation, sometimes leading to deep faultlines, loss of corporate memory and the high cost of replicating structures. Not taking them can be costly too, with sectionalism breaking out where it is felt the differences are glossed over. Devolving for populist reasons is probably the most risky of all.

Though Macmillan has strong management teams in each nation, it has decided not to devolve. There are three main reasons. The first is the brand, recognised in the remotest corners of the UK, which could only be weakened by splitting it up. The second is our redistributive role: we are free to move our funds to any part of the UK in support of local fundraising.

The third is the disease: cancer is the same escalating menace everywhere in the country.

As the meeting with our errant partner goes on, I remember that, when a UK charity withdrew its services in Wales a couple of years ago, the big UK caring charities were asked to commit to no change in their services without prior consultation. It works both ways, I think to myself, it works both ways.

Peter Cardy is chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

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