Peter Stanford: Reacting to nonsensical funding decisions

As the end of government funding to the charity Circles UK shows, sometimes trustees have to speak out for the benefit of the greater good

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

There are many qualities you require to be a half-decent trustee, most of them to do with being calm, measured, analytical and able to work collaboratively towards a consensus. I’m making us sound like a band of Theresa May clones. But sometimes, and I should stress it is rarely, a touch of righteous indignation can also be appropriate.

I spent almost two years recently as a trustee of Circles UK, a wonderful, originally Quaker organisation that has quietly, patiently but hugely effectively been working through its Circles of Support and Accountability programme to work with sex offenders on their release from prison into the community. The combination of support and accountability – the second is just as important as the first – has enabled the trained volunteers in individual circles around the country to achieve impressive results in terms of reoffending rates and effective management of ex-offenders.

Which is why the work has been supported by both the Ministry of Justice and the National Probation Service. It is surely an unimpeachably good use of public funds, because to raise charitable money for such a programme is pretty difficult given public hostility to sex offenders and to any suggestion that they should ever be let out of prison. And a right-thinking use too: whereas keeping someone convicted of sexual offences in jail long beyond the point when it can have any rehabilitative effect costs the public purse about £40,000 a year, the support of Circles per head is a fraction of that. As a charity, it is saving the taxpayer money, reducing reoffending and hence cutting the number of victims, as well as demonstrating that, even in the hardest of cases, we are the compassionate and humane society we claim to be.

You know what’s coming, don’t you? The National Probation Service is axing its grant to Circles UK. We all learnt long ago that government gives and government takes away on a whim when it comes to charitable programmes, so it was always a risk, but on this occasion the given reason – to divert the resources to building accommodation in the community for newly released sex offenders – should not in a rational world be quoted as an either-or with funding Circles support. The two have to go hand-in-hand.

This is another of those stupid, shortsighted, cowardly cuts that have been made too often under the banner of the Age of Austerity. Like many others, it isn’t even a cut at all, but rather a recipe for making things worse than they are, and hence piling up greater costs and misery further down the line.

As you can see, I am indignant. So what is a trustee, or recently ex-trustee in my case, to do in such a situation? Support our charity to make a song and dance about what a mistake is being made? Naturally. Send in the chair of the board alongside the chief executive to make our case at the highest possible level of government we can get access to? Tick. Alert the press? Done: it’s been in the pages of The Times.

Is there anything more? As a society, we are entirely reliant on members of the public to volunteer their time and energies as trustees so that our charitable sector is properly regulated. There is plenty of encouragement that comes from on high – Westminster and Whitehall – to roll up our sleeves and get involved. And we do. But when a completely nonsensical decision is then made, which could send into a tailspin the charity we have laboured long and hard to make thrive, trustees are greeted with polite smiles and the brush-off from ministers amid talk of hard decisions and straitened times.

To stamp our feet, to make a fuss, to point an accusing finger in such circumstances can sometimes seem, well, a bit un-trustee-like. But perhaps if we made more noise and got more angry more often, those who so lightly make these terrible decisions, and who calculate that the trustees are decent, reasonable folk who won’t cause any real trouble, might just be forced to think a little bit harder. They might even do the right thing for the national interest a bit more often.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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