Simon Hebditch: Angela Smith's 'moment' makes the case for an independent adjudicator

The third sector minister's Compact breach will have far-reaching consequences, writes our columnist

Simon Hebditch
Simon Hebditch

Despite the recent festive season, I am still pondering the odd behaviour of the Minister for the Third Sector over that Campaigning Research Programme, especially in relation to the Compact. Was the Hardship Fund suddenly so short of resources that she needed to divert money from one programme to another? If so, why? What steps have been taken by the Government to compensate the organisations that were due to receive funds from the Campaigning Research Programme?

The longer-term consequence, apart from damaging the Government's reputation with the voluntary and community sector, could be a reduced status for the Compact. Now we know that statutory funders have to take account of Compact principles only when making funding decisions, and do not have to see them as a clear requirement of good governance. If government funders adopt this approach, there is no reason why the voluntary sector should necessarily keep to its side of the bargain.

Any such dilution of the relationship between the state and the third sector would be a major step backwards. The newly refreshed Compact, published last month, is a clear and readable document that sets out some straightforward principles for enhancing the agreement both nationally and locally. It is certainly a more usable document than its predecessor. The work of the Commission for the Compact should be encouraged and sustained if sensible relationships are to be fostered in future.

But the Angela Smith 'moment' has the potential to hinder such developments and leave the Compact falling between two stools. It is a set of good practice principles but has no intrinsic powers. It has a moral force, perhaps, rather than being a set of codified rules by which behaviour can be judged. But the intention at the beginning was more ambitious than this. The establishment of the Compact was meant to cement a deal between government and the third sector, setting out how both parties would behave towards each other over consultation and funding decisions in particular.

This fracas illustrates the built-in error - that the Government refused to countenance an independent mechanism to adjudicate when seemingly intractable disputes arose. Should we not give Sir Bert Massie, Commissioner for the Compact, the power to act as adjudicator? The case for building in such a process, mandatory for both parties, is now unanswerable.

- Simon Hebditch is an independent consultant and former chief executive of Capacitybuilders.

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