The year in policy and politics: 2014

The main developments of the past twelve months included the swift rise and fall of civil society minister Brooks Newmark, fears about the effect of the lobbying act on campaigning charities, and proposed new powers for the Charity Commission in the draft Protection of Charities Bill

Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament

The resignation of Brooks Newmark as charities minister following a newspaper sting was by far the biggest story in the political arena of 2014.

Newmark’s departure immediately before the Conservative Party conference was due to Sunday Mirror newspaper report that he had sent sexually explicit pictures of himself to an undercover journalist who was posing a female Tory PR intern.

Newmark, who subsequently announced he would also stand down as the MP for Braintree at the next election, had only replaced Nick Hurd as Minister for Civil Society a couple of months before.

Hurd, who had been in office for more than four years, was given generally positive send-offs from sector leaders when he departed in July.

Newmark was succeeded by Rob Wilson, the Conservative MP for Reading East, whose initial work has included talks with the Big Lottery Fund and Big Society Capital about a new £100m endowment fund that would help charities and social enterprises attract social investment and win public service contracts over the next 10 years.

Charity campaigning has been a major issue this year. The government’s controversial lobbying act, which some charities feared would adversely affect their ability to speak out, received royal assent in January.

In July, the Electoral Commission published its guidance for compliance with the act, but it was criticised in some quarters for being difficult to understand. The commission has since been tinkering with the guidance.

A handful of charities, including Stonewall, the League Against Cruel Sports and the RSPCA registered as non-party campaigners with the Electoral Commission since the beginning of the first regulated period in September.

In April, the Labour Party pledged to repeal the lobbying act and consult the voluntary sector on what should replace it.

Changes to the judicial review process was also a recurring subject. In February, the government dropped plans to introduce a tougher test for which organisations, including charities, could bring judicial review proceedings.

A Ministry of Justice consultation last year proposed introducing tougher restrictions on bringing judicial review proceedings, which was criticised at the time as a "full-frontal attack" on charity campaigning.

But that was not the last of proposed changes to judicial review. Charities and their representatives were nervously monitoring the progress of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, with particular regard to conditions affecting organisations that seek to intervene in judicial review proceedings.

The government originally proposed that organisations that intervene in judicial review proceedings, which are often charities, would be liable to pay other parties’ costs as a result of their intervention.

Lawyers warned that this would, in effect, mean that charities would be unlikely to be able to afford to intervene in such cases, because the costs of doing so could run to tens of thousands of pounds.

Following some back and forth between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, wording was finally accepted by both sides that would result in organisations, including charities, being liable to pay other parties’ costs if certain criteria had not been met, including that their intervention is deemed by the judge to have not been of significant assistance to the court.

Lisa Nandy, the shadow charities minister, said in December that a future Labour government would amend the legislation to ensure that charities are not deterred from intervening in judicial review cases by potential costs.

Setting out Labour’s voluntary sector policies for the 2015 election, Nandy also said her party would revive ministerial commitment to the Compact, the agreement that sets out how voluntary and public sector organisations should behave towards each other. She said Labour would also end unnecessary gagging clauses in public service delivery contracts.

Nandy’s policy promises came just a couple of weeks after Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, said that a Labour government would introduce a requirement for private schools to draw up agreements setting out how they would support their state counterparts or face losing their business rate relief.

In February, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee said in a report that the Charity Commission lacked a coherent strategy and did not possess the ability to adequately address its shortcomings.

The committee’s report into the work of the regulator said the commission was not regulating charities properly and had been "buffeted by external events".

The commission rejected the criticism that it lacked leadership and said it was making progress in addressing its shortcomings.

In June, the government announced in the Queen’s Speech new legislation to give the Charity Commission tougher powers to deal with abuse and mismanagement in charities.

Politicians began to get their teeth into the draft Protection of Charities Bill in November, when a joint committee of Lords and MPs was established and swiftly began taking evidence on measures in it.

This included being told that the proposal in the bill to enable the Charity Commission to disqualify someone from being a charity trustee if it considered them to be unfit was too broad and needed external scrutiny.

The evidence sessions will continue into next year.

The National Audit Office published two reports in 2014 into government funding provided to the Society Network Foundation, the charity that owns the Big Society Network.

The first report, published in July, found that Cabinet Office and the Big Lottery Fund breached their own procedures and guidelines in the awarding and management of more than £2m of funding to the BSN.

The second report, published in November, said that the Prime Minister’s Office asked the Cabinet Office to provide £150,000 of funding for the BSN to operate the Big Society Awards despite concerns about its performance.

In between the two NAO reports, the Society Network Foundation applied to Companies House to be wound up.

The year ended with the Charity Commission administering mild slaps on the wrist to both Oxfam and the Institute for Public Policy Research.

The regulator said that Oxfam should have "done more to avoid any misperception of political bias" in a tweet sent in May that sparked a complaint to the Charity Commission by Conor Burns, the Conservative MP for Bournemouth West.

And the regulator concluded that the charitable think tank the IPPR "exposed itself to the perception that it supported the development of Labour Party policy" when it launched a document with Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party.

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