It’s hard not to get seriously cross about how little our sector clearly matters to this government, when almost a week after the reshuffle started we still hadn’t been told who the Minister for Civil Society would be, or in which department the charities brief would reside. Our consternation was compounded by rumours that the charities’ brief would be folded into some other junior minister’s portfolio – of which we’re still waiting confirmation.
Many of my colleagues have spent an enormous amount of time over the last couple of years communicating with Baroness Barran, the recently reshuffled Minister for our sector, and working in good faith with civil servants at DCMS, to inform and influence policy for the sector. At times like this, it’s hard not to feel that has been a huge waste of time.
Although by all accounts the Baroness is a lovely person and very sympathetic to our cause, ultimately her power and influence within DCMS wasn’t enough to substantially influence the direction of travel. Yes, she has been marshalling the Charities Bill through parliament – but it’s a highly technical piece of legislation which in all honestly will only affect a small number of charities in quite specific circumstances, and overall probably won’t trouble the day-to-day running of most of the rest of us.
So it seems to me (although others might argue differently of course) that we’ve ended up being taken no more seriously by The Secretary of State, the Treasury or the PM, at the end of Baroness Barran’s tenure than at the beginning. I don’t think being in the Lords and not the Commons helped either.
In case this gets mistaken for a party-political rant, I’d point out that there was a time when the Conservative Party took charities quite seriously, at least in principle. They invested substantially in policy development for the sector when in opposition before the 2010 General Election, (Big Society anyone?) and subsequently appointed a dedicated Minister in Nick Hurd, with the charities portfolio residing in the Cabinet Office with a cross-departmental brief.
But since that reshuffle and subsequent ones ever since, our standing within and across government has been shaky at best and non-existent at worse. For the last two years or so I’ve been seriously wondering if we were wasting our time. I’ve argued with colleagues that if at national level we’re not influencing decision making, getting access to substantial resources and policy makers why are we bothering?
Then I was reminded that our sector is independent anyhow. We don’t report to any government department, even if there’s a Minister who nominally has responsibility. No department has the right or power to dictate our actions as charities. The vast majority of the sector gets no financial support from central government departments anyway – most of any state money charities get comes from Local Authorities and other forms of state funding via the local NHS or police forces for example. And most don’t even get that.
Where charities do need to influence it’s more likely to be in other central government departments such as the Ministry of Justice, Defra, Education and so on.
So I think it’s time we reclaimed the narrative. Ministers are there to serve and support us to serve our causes and beneficiaries – not the other way round. It is not our job to answer to them but to invite them to work with us for the betterment of society – and if they don’t want to then that’s a matter for them to decide if they are happy that their decisions will be less informed and their policies less effective as a result.
And if they demand that we compromise our principles to get their engagement we can always say ‘No. We’re good, thanks.’ We’ll crack on without them. They are not the boss of us. And it’s worth reminding them of that.
So does who our new minister at DCMS is really matter that much? Nah. Not really. So let’s stop worrying about it and just get on with doing what we do – which is making our society, our citizens, our communities and our causes be the best they can be. They’re welcome to join in and help.