Simon Hebditch: U-turn on campaigning funds smacks of a pre-election panic

The sector needs a major campaign to persuade the Government to change its mind, says our columnist

Simon Hebditch
Simon Hebditch

I was about to write a column about the moves within the Conservative Party to develop its policies and approaches to the decentralisation of power and the role of the third sector.

But that will have to wait, because I was astounded by the news that a whole campaign research programme had been dropped by the Office of the Third Sector without even a hint of consultation with the organisations concerned.

It seems to me a perfectly legitimate proposition that the money might - or might not - be better spent being incorporated into the Hardship Fund, but the change smacks of a last-minute panic.

Given that the funding programme had been thoroughly prepared, and that organisations had gone through an application process and been awarded specific grants, the only conclusion is that politicians began to get the wobbles about some of the organisations that were going to receive funds.

It all seems oddly reminiscent of previous panics when politicians, with an eye to forthcoming elections, got nervous about what either The Sun or the Daily Mail would say.

If that is not the case, the Office of the Third Sector should explain why the Government has changed its mind at the last minute. My understanding is that the programme was designed to enable small organisations to learn lessons about campaigning and communicate their experiences to others.

Capacitybuilders, my old haunt, was asked to include this fund in the range of programmes it has been delivering on behalf of government, and it appears that the agency was also not consulted about the potential impact of a change of government views.

I hope ministers can be prevailed upon to change their minds. They have already performed one U-turn, so another won't matter that much, and many organisations now face real difficulty finding alternative sources of funds to carry out their campaign research work.

The whole saga does point up a problem for the third sector as we enter this period of pre-election nerves. To what extent will organisations be muzzled by politicians of all parties trying to avoid controversy or principled debate?

I am writing this on the Tuesday after the Friday before, so maybe the Government will have reversed its position before the column appears - in which case, great news!

But I won't hold my breath, and if Angela Smith is still being obdurate we will need a major campaign over the next few weeks to help the Government make the right decision.

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