Sir Stephen Bubb: Speaking truth to power - or whispering?

The sector must make better use of the media to champion the work of charities and to stand up to government, writes the director of Charity Futures

Sir Stephen Bubb
Sir Stephen Bubb

Our sector is supposed to pride itself on its ability to "speak truth to power" but frankly at the moment you would be hard pressed to see many examples of it.

I was proud to be part of the marvellous coalition of organisations that fought the lobbying act and made such a change to it. We also worked closely with our colleagues to fight the nonsense of the contract gagging clauses that still lurk around in-tray of Rob Wilson, the charities minister. But the reality is that the real threat to the sector is our own self-censorship.

In the big debates of the moment, you would need to look hard to find the charity leaders’ voice. On Brexit, for example, we took a craven line in the referendum debate and now are failing to effectively challenge the rise of xenophobia and hate crime. There are honourable exceptions, of course, and the organisations promoting the cause of migrants and refugees is a great one. But, by and large, we have failed to come together to promote the tolerance and inclusivity that our sector espouses. Where was the voice of the sector denouncing the appalling "foreigner employees" speech of Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary?

Then we come to the horrendous crisis in our health and social care system. This strikes at the heart of where our sector has traditionally been active. Many third sector bodies are prominent in service delivery and advocacy. What is happening with the care of the frail elderly in hospitals around the country is scandalous. I have seen this at first hand with my father who has just spent over two months in hospital and I have seen the strains on the system.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, has been a great example of someone prepared to tell the truth publicly about the crisis. On Monday, we had Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, on the radio denying there is a problem and insisting that the planned cuts – so-called efficiency savings – will go ahead. This is disastrous, and anyone who knows what is happening in A&E or in the care system realises the need for more resources.

But where are the charity sector leaders pointing out in the media the crisis we face and demanding action? There is a curious silence when we need a voice. Sometimes leaders think you work behind the scenes to get action and don't use the media. This is a wrong approach.

The media is an essential ally and a great negotiating tool. The media is not a nasty thing you wheel out when all else has failed. Politicians respond when they feel there is public pressure and concern. Thinking you can make change through discussion and meetings alone can be a flawed approach. A judicious use of media to give voice to genuine concern, to articulate what beneficiaries are experiencing and to demand action, is part of the process of getting action.

Hopson has brilliantly shown how this is done by exploiting media on behalf of his members whilst engaging seriously with them on solutions. Politicians and ministers, and therefore officials, respond when there is a crisis and you are there both demanding action publicly, and there to offer a solution. But they also need to fear you. A charity leader uses media to extract change because people trust us and listen to us and that is something many politicians don't have.

But there is a second and perhaps more fundamental reason why we need the media. A charity is not there simply to deliver a service or act as an agent of the state. Our beneficiaries want someone to champion them and articulate their concerns and demand change. They want to hear that. They want to see it. We are not simply there to work behind the scenes, but to speak truth to power in a way that reassures our beneficiaries that we are on the case.

I'm afraid Prime Minister Theresa May is deeply unengaged in the current crisis and she will not become engaged until she starts hearing us on Radio 4's Today programme, the front page of the Daily Mail or top of the news. The NHS didn't run the pilots in A&E two years ago simply because I presented government with a neat paper. It did it because it feared the damage a winter crisis could do. We have failed to capitalise on that. Never fall for the trap governments set when they tell you won't get anywhere if you go to the press. That secures compliance, not action.

I'm reflecting what I am seeing in the media and also on 15 years of working with politicians and getting results. When the Blair government wanted to make a major policy impact on charities, Number 10 was able to ignore many sector leaders. Those that were consulted – myself included – were those whose public backing was vital to success, and whose public opposition in the press could have been a serious thorn in the side. A charity leader needs to be in a position where they are too dangerous to ignore, and they can provide answers to sort major problems.

Bob Kerslake, former chief of the Home Civil Service, last week pointed to the power of the sector and said to remember we are more powerful than politicians. He sums up my position brilliantly: "You have to stand apart and have an independent voice, and in my experience in government they respect those who stand up and challenge, even if they don’t like it. The worst thing you can be seen to do is cower in front of government because, eventually, they will get you."

Sir Stephen Bubb is the director of Charity Futures. This article first appeared on his website.

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