What the new Civil Society Strategy should really take on board
The UK’s social fabric and financial economy relies heavily on the work of charities and voluntary groups. This sector massively subsidises the state and therefore frees up public money for other government priorities. Charities are set up and run by the public, and millions of people work and volunteer for them every year.
It appears that government policies, actions and messages towards the sector are overwhelmingly negative and disproportionate, and underestimate how critical they are to UK public services and citizens in general. Charities should not be treated as if they are the enemy, they’re interwoven with the public. Good regulation already exists – we don’t need more.
It is critical that the government understands that it cannot treat or speak about charities as if they are all the same. What might work for 4,000 large charities will not work for 30,000 small to medium or 110,000 micro charities. The government did not crack down on small and medium-sized enterprises as response to the banking crisis, it focused its efforts. The charitable sector requires the same balanced and proportionate approach both in rhetoric and regulation.
Only a very small number of charities want money from central or local government. The vast majority want voice and influence – but the state tends to only engage with those they fund. This could and should change.
Government has recently asked charities to feed into the development their new Civil Society Strategy.
Here are three key themes for government to consider when developing its strategy:
1 Freedom to give
Give people the space they need and enable them to pursue their charitable objectives.
- Government should encourage people to engage with charitable work. Warning people unnecessarily that their giving is ‘unsafe’ or that they should not trust charities isn’t helpful. Back people to solve local issues and encourage them to do so.
- We have a commissioning regime for public services which suffocates charities. They face inflexible contracts and unrealistic terms and conditions. Charities are subsidising poor contracts with public donations. Make more use of grants – they are a force for getting the best out of charities.
2 Support what works
Existing bodies and mechanisms can deliver.
- Provide the Charity Commission with an adequate budget. Trustees need sound guidance and advice to do their work. Charities should not pay for their own regulation – charities are fundamentally different from other regulated sectors because they depend on the free giving of time and money – a public good.
- The Big Lottery Fund is still waiting to be paid back £425m from the London Olympics. It is a vital support for civil society across Britain and an excellent vehicle for helping the most disadvantaged communities. Get them their refund – at no extra cost to the Exchequer.
- Using dormant assets to endow Community Foundations is a brilliant way to give communities local grant funding which they desperately need. This doesn’t need too much or any government money, just policy commitment.
3 Open your ears
Listen to what charities have to say, even if it’s uncomfortable. Don’t make it harder for people to speak up.
- The Lobbying Act needs reform. We all think that political campaigning needs rules, but the current rules are a mess. There is broad agreement about how to do this – implement the recommendations of Lord Hodgson. It’s a win-win solution.
- Ban ‘gagging clauses’ in public service delivery contracts. Unless they are used to protect data for individual beneficiaries, they force people to stay silent when things are not working on the ground, and block the flow of potentially useful information.
- Stop ‘nonsultation’. Failing to genuinely consult civil society will lead to less informed, less effective government policy. Don’t ask people to spend time giving their opinion if the result has already been decided in advance or there’s no intention of changing policy as a result.
You can download our Civil Society Strategy consultation submission here.