Staff at voluntary sector organisations are often afraid of speaking out against the strategies of their organisations and broader voluntary sector policies, according to Andy Benson, a director of the campaigning group the National Coalition for Independent Action.
Benson was chairing a meeting of NCIA members and supporters called Cuts, Co-options & Trojan Horses: Voluntary Groups Against a Conservative Government, held yesterday in parliament and hosted by John McDonnell, the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington.
The meeting heard from Maurice Wren, chief executive of the Refugee Council, Elizabeth Bayliss, chief executive of Social Action for Health, James Lazou, a research officer at the union Unite, and Leslie Huckfield, a researcher and former Labour MP.
Lazou presented information from the union’s recent strategy document that urged a rethink of the government’s attitude towards charities; Bayliss spoke about avoiding prescriptive commissioning and retaining the charity’s independence; and Huckfield criticised social investment and public service contracting policies, and renewed his criticism of charity sector umbrella bodies for not opposing these. "The organisations that are meant to stand up for us have been complicit," said Huckfield.
Benson said he felt that many people in the sector shared these concerns but were afraid of airing them. "We know that there are many people in voluntary sector organisations who are very unhappy about what they are being asked to do and they feel isolated because they are out of step with the management attitude," he said. "A whole debate is being submerged by fear."
Wren expressed concern at the way government contracts and grants were being used to suppress dissent or discourage advocacy, and said that better collaboration and solidarity between social sector organisations was the key to opposing this and to surviving the cuts and the likely rise in workload in the next five years.
Wren also criticised the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and others for not fighting back against attacks on voluntary sector independence, but said he hoped it was still possible to find common ground. "I know we have our problems with the NCVO, I know we have our problems with Acevo and the like, but I really think that in the next five years we’ve got to treat them as the prodigal sons and daughters and try to bring them back to us," he said.
Benson said that 10 years after its foundation the NCIA was in the process of winding down. He told Third Sector that the NCIA had succeeded in documenting what it sees as negative changes in the sector, but had failed to get this message across in order to change the attitudes and policies of the big umbrella bodies.
Benson said a final report by the NCIA, called Fighting for the Soul of Social Action, would be produced late in the summer.