Monthly Archives: February 2011

Why are the unions so hostile towards the voluntary sector?

On Wednesday night I was at Lambeth town hall in Brixton, south London, where around 150 protesters occupied the council chamber during a meeting, forcing councillors to leave.

Lambeth Town HallThe council meeting was to pass a budget that contained cuts of around £79m over three years. Once the councillors had left (to hold a private meeting at which the budget was passed), the protesters declared a “people’s democracy” in which everyone could voice their concerns.

One of the many things that struck me during the protesters’ meeting was the unions’ reluctance to let the voluntary sector run services. When the protesters started talking about a council plan to let voluntary and community groups run the borough’s playgrounds, the reactions ranged from scorn to pity.

“The voluntary sector just can’t run our playgrounds, no matter how well-intentioned it is,” said one of the town hall occupiers. “It’s just not capable of doing it.”

Others took a more hostile approach, muttering loudly about voluntary groups “taking jobs” from the public sector.

I hadn’t realised until last night how much of a problem this could be for the sector. Charities are under pressure from both sides of the political spectrum: those on the right think they shouldn’t get state funding in the first place, and those on the left think that when they do they are undermining the public sector.

Lambeth Town HallThis could be a particular problem in Lambeth, where the council has a radical plan to become Britain’s first “co-operative council” in which services are provided by voluntary groups wherever possible.

But I’m sure it won’t be limited to Lambeth. Reluctance, or in some cases open hostility, from those in the public sector – particularly when their jobs are at risk – must be making life hard for voluntary groups across the country.

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Social impact bonds are hot topics

The social
impact bond seems flavour of the month. The US budget on 14 February was
sprinkled with references to the concept, there known as a “pay for success”
bond, and as much as $100m could be spent on them in the next few years. Other
countries are also interested.

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The smoke and mirrors are getting annoying

Saying that politicians sometimes manipulate statistics is like saying that footballers sometimes fancy their teammates’ girlfriends. Not only is it an understatement, but it’s also one of those things that everyone assumes to be their modus operandi. And it only makes the headlines when a particularly audacious episode takes place.

But the latest trend in abusing the numbers is bothering me more than usual. Both Francis Maude and Nat Wei have said this week that 75 per cent of charities receive no government funding. In both cases, the figure was used as evidence that the big society can function despite public spending cuts.

I’m sure it’s true that three quarters of the 180,000 charities registered with the Charity Commission get no cash from the state. But how many of those are defunct, barely operational or tiny in scale?

A more accurate statistic would be that, according to the NCVO’s Civil Society Almanac, around 36 per cent of the sector’s overall income comes from the public purse. And, funnily enough, this figure wouldn’t prevent Maude and Wei from making their point quite effectively.

Of course, there are other statistics for charities to be annoyed about. Nick Hurd’s repeated claim that the government is pumping £470m into the voluntary sector, when in fact this is just a reduced version of the usual Office for Civil Society budget, grates somewhat.

So does David Cameron’s insistence that the £100m Transition Fund proves the government is supporting the sector – with the notable absence of any recognition that charities and voluntary groups will pay around £150m more in VAT this year than last year, and receive around £100m less in Gift Aid because of the end of transitional relief.

But somehow, the 75 per cent figure is the most annoying part of the smoke and mirrors – a phrase Nick Hurd used to use a lot when castigating the Labour government. It’s a blatant insult to the intelligence of the sector and the public.

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Big society fatigue sets in

It’s been hard to get away from the big society in the last couple of weeks. All the papers – including the Sun – have been on about it, and every second programme on radio and TV has been trying to get a handle on it.

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Just how useful is the Big Society Bank going to be?

The announcement that the Big Society Bank
was to receive £200m funding
“on a commercial basis”, rather than £1bn as a
gift, surprised a lot of people, including, it appeared from some conversations
I had yesterday, some people in the banks and the Treasury themselves.

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The tune has changed for the big society

Back in October, when I went to the
Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, the big society was everywhere. It
would have been physically impossible for one person to go to every conference session that
had the phrase in its title.

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Blanket emails to MPs are lazy, wasteful and lack strategy

There is absolutely no point in sending someone a blanket
email if you are hoping to spur them into any kind of action.

This is the case whether you are hoping to convince them to
care about your cause, persuade them give a donation to your organisation or
even entice them into reading past sentence two of your email.

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