Stephen Hale: Charities shouldn't focus too much on the new Minister for Civil Society

The decisions that matter to the sector are made elsewhere in government

Stephen Hale
Stephen Hale

So Mims Davies is the new Minister for Civil Society. Have you rushed off your letter asking for a meeting yet?

Take a moment to step back. If we really want to bring the people and causes we hold dear into the heart of government I think we should focus far more creatively and consistently on the people and places in government that really matter.

Britain’s charities are the lifeblood of our communities, the recipients of incredible public support and among the best in the world. Britons gave gave £22.3bn to UK charities in the most recent year for which we have figures.

Despite all the twists and turns of the past few years public trust in charities remains high. About 11.9 million of us formally volunteer once a month. Every MP knows this, and loves to be photographed with their local charities.

Despite this, charities have become marginalised in the highly charged debate about the future of our country. Neither the current government nor the main opposition party place charities at the heart of their accounts of how the UK works and how we move forward.

Our role as a source of expertise and an agent of change is contested. Yet our society, our state and our markets all depend on the vital work charities do, both in delivering life-changing programmes and in championing issues and solutions at all levels of government.

It’s high time we turned this around, as I argued on these pages earlier this year.

Davies has charities as one aspect of her responsibility, in a department with very little influence across Whitehall, and is new to ministerial office. That’s a highly unlikely platform for her to secure a step change in our role and influence across government.

Her predecessor, Tracey Crouch, played a critical role in the new Civil Society Strategy, which contains many welcome words. But she wasn't in a position to turn this into real change across Whitehall, and nor is her successor.

Don’t believe me? Rob Wilson spent four years as charity minister. His piece in Third Sector earlier this year on the challenges he faced was crystal clear. Here’s what he said: "My personal experience, particularly when in the Cabinet Office, is that government is too big and fragmented to get much done that involves any level of cooperation or consideration from other departments."

He was right. It’s a lesson that is evident in other areas where change is needed across Whitehall.

In a previous life I worked as special adviser to the environment secretary and was often lobbied on issues over which the environment department had no control. Environmental charities have learnt that the critical decisions in climate change policy are made not by the environment secretary, but by the Chancellor and secretaries of state for energy, transport and housing. So that’s where they focus.

Junior ministers cannot, by definition, achieve great things. In the area where I now work the government created the post of minister for refugees in September 2015. It was abolished 22 months later. A dedicated role had made no discernible impact. All the decisions that matter were and are made by the Home Secretary. It is on that office that we focus our campaigns and advocacy.

I wish Davies all the best in her new role, but talking to her won’t get us what we so urgently need. We must persuade the current government and indeed the opposition of our vital role in society, and in developing policies and programmes that change Britain for the better.

We won’t do that through a single strategy or one minister. Real life is messier than that. We need half a dozen champions around the Cabinet table, with the vision to make to make charities and community organisations a core part of their agendas. It is there that we must focus, working together in public or private, as we always should.

Stephen Hale is chief executive of Refugee Action

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