Earlier this year, the government quietly announced that it was going to ban charities and social enterprises in receipt of government grants from "using those funds to lobby government and parliament". The move was intended to prevent civil society organisations from campaigning for new regulation or using taxpayers’ money to encourage further government funding. And it came on the back of a barrage of negative stories in the press about some charities’ activities.
The effect of the wording of the anti-lobbying clause was far wider. In practice, it could have prevented a charity or social enterprise in receipt of a grant from the government from hosting a visit by its local MP, or stopped it from having a dialogue with a civil servant who was seeking advice on a policy issue. It would have meant that third sector organisations or academics carrying out research funded by grants would not have been able to present their findings to parliament.
But last week the government unveiled substantial changes to the planned clause. This was the result of the membership bodies Social Enterprise UK, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and Acevo joining forces to engage with civil servants behind closed doors. We are relieved that they have listened. The new grant standards are a significant improvement and explicitly safeguard the important role of charities and social enterprises in presenting evidence to government and our elected representatives. It’s good news and we are hopeful that it represents the beginning of a refreshed approach from the government to the third sector.
The clause in its original form had the potential to silence social enterprises and charities, the very organisations that work with and support some of society’s most vulnerable, often those without a voice. It would have been an unfair, unnecessary and potentially disastrous move. The new grant standards mean that civil society organisations can continue to shape and inform policy on behalf of the people and causes they work for.
So what now? The third sector must seize the opportunity to help a new government reimagine its relationship with the sector. And it is in the sector’s interests to do with this with integrity and pragmatism.
We are living in a climate of austerity and in a country that is deeply divided, largely as a result of the inequality that has taken hold in Britain. In such times, people like to batten down the hatches and blame others for their misfortune. And so, sadly, sympathy for those in need – the vulnerable, the disabled, the sick and those living in poverty – ends up in short supply. That’s why our sector has to come together to develop new ideas and solutions, and to reinforce and communicate the good (and great) practice that exists.
The government, the general public, funders and corporate partners need to be aware of the difference we’re making in communities across Britain. Collectively, we are a sector that employs millions, turns over billions and creates infinite, incalculable public benefit. In terms of advocacy and representation, we need to invest in ensuring that the story is well told and well understood.
We have every right to be proud of our sector, and the mainstream media should be too (in theory). Many still hold the view that the third sector is made up of elderly women rattling charity tins, and this needs to change. Larger charities are run like businesses and their chief executives and senior teams are, in the main, worthy of their salaries. We need to open the doors to the third sector engine room and be transparent. We also need to be vocal about the various roles we play and how we generate our income. For example, when we’re bidding for public sector contracts, we need to communicate why society profits when social enterprises and charities win them, rather than private companies.
Efforts have already been made, and they must continue. We can’t put our heads in the sand and hope this will go away. Not only do policymakers expect more of our sector, but ordinary people do too. Traditional businesses can and do behave badly on a regular basis, but third sector organisations are not afforded the same luxury. Expectations are high, so when one or two fall, the sector falls. Let’s do all we can to turn the tide.
Peter Holbrook is chief executive of Social Enterprise UK