Posts By: John Plummer

Big society conference has a whiff of civil disobedience about it

On Tuesday I listened to people from the often-unheard community sector
discuss the big society.

There was no government speaker and hardly any suits or ties in the
room.

A rather hirsute man wearing jeans and a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt, and with
a strong West Midlands accent, chaired the event. Very nearly half the 35
delegates were women and 10 were non-white.

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It’s hard to see through the fog surrounding the future of the National Lottery

One of the most vexing issues on the voluntary sector landscape right now is the future of the National Lottery.

The government wants to reduce the amount of good causes money awarded by the Big Lottery Fund from 50 per cent to 40 per cent.

Considering that the BLF has given £3.6bn to mainly charitable projects since 2004, you might have expected this to be greeted with howls of protest.

But the sector’s response so far has been fairly muted because nobody knows quite what the impact will be.

Ministers claim charities will actually benefit. While the BLF’s slice of the cake will diminish, they say, the overall size of the cake will increase when Olympics-diverted funds return after 2012.

They are also proposing that all BLF funding goes to not-for-profit organisations. Currently, a minimum of 80 per cent must go to voluntary groups although the BLF says the actual figure is 92 per cent. The remainder goes to statutory projects, which under the last government led to allegations of ministers using the lottery to fund pet projects.

Ministers also point out that, although the proportion of lottery money going to the BLF will decrease, the proportion going to arts, heritage and sports distributors will increase and a good deal of this will go to charities.

It’s a persuasive argument, yet a sense of uneasiness remains. Last week Navca and the Directory of Social Change called on the overall amount of money going to local voluntary and community groups to be preserved.

When Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, was in opposition he was fond of using the phrase ‘smoke and mirrors’ to describe Labour’s policies and statements.

It’s hard to see through the fog of this one.

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The government talks local but acts national. How do charities make sense of this?

Two stories I have worked on this year have generated considerable feeling.

One is the merger of Age Concern and Help the Aged into Age UK and its subsequent attempts to persuade local Age Concerns to become ‘brand partners’.

The other is the decision by the Alzheimer’s Society to merge local branches into a new regional structure.

In both cases the changes have been perceived by opponents as attempts by big, bureaucratic London-based charities to impose their will on local charities.

Whether or not this is true, certainly there has been increasing pressure on large charities to bend to the government’s way of working if they want to retain their influence and funding. For many, this has meant becoming more business-like and centralising their structures.

But now the coalition government is talking about a smaller state and a big society.

Small community groups may have displaced large, heavily state-funded charities in ministers’ affections but the large scale radical reforms the government is introducing, such as the Work Programme, are only fuelling the pressure on charities to get bigger and more professional.

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David Cameron may support local action but what about local government?

I woke this morning to hear charities leading the news.

It did not turn out to be quite as interesting as it first seemed. Previews of David Cameron’s comments about the big society contained mainly re-heated announcements, such as setting up a big society bank.

But there was some interesting new information, such as the establishment of “vanguard communities” – a great piece of bureaucratic jargon.

Cameron also speaks about “pushing power down and seeing what happens”. Well, judging by what’s happening currently we can tell him: carnage.

Barely a day passes without news of more cuts by local authorities. London Councils, Croydon Council and Slough Borough Council are among the latest to pass on the impact of funding reductions to the voluntary sector. Often at local level the Compact has been ignored.

The government has considerable faith in the voluntary sector, whatever its motives.

But it brings back memories of a comment made by former third sector minister Kevin Brennan a few years ago. He said that one of the things Labour learned was that you couldn’t just pull a lever in Whitehall and expect things to happen locally.

Finding ways of bridging this gap between what national government wants and local government can manage is likely to remain one of the major stumbling blocks to building the big society.

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Large charities win contracts, but how does that square with big society rhetoric?

Are small charities better than big ones? Few questions provoke more ire.

Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, says it is a “senseless and divisive argument”.

But the new government seems to be following the path trodden by Iain Duncan Smith five years ago when he contrasted “bureaucratic and risk-averse” big charities with “the instinctive understanding” of small, local groups.

It was noticeable that small groups, rather than the sector monoliths, were invited to Downing Street to discuss the big society last month.

This month, Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, said the new Communities First fund would be “super-local, seriously neighbourhood-based and almost microscopically granular”.

I’m not quite sure what he meant but it didn’t sound like an invitation to Cancer Research UK to apply.

Yet charities still face pressure to get bigger and more centralised if they want to tango with the government.

The Alzheimer’s Society is a high profile example. It has tightened control over local offices, which has upset some volunteers but was done to improve accountability and enable the charity to win more contracts from the government.

I interviewed Jeremy Hughes yesterday, who, it was announced this week, is leaving Breakthrough Breast Cancer to become the society’s chief executive. He thinks cancer charities’ model of closer collaboration with government is the way to go if you want to win contracts and influence people.

It’s difficult to argue with that, yet it’s hard to see how it squares with the ‘big society’.

Like it or not, I suspect the size issue will be one of the key themes of the years ahead.

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What happened to the big splash on the Compact?

2010 was supposed to be the year of the big push for the Compact. “Next year is an important time to make a big splash,” said Richard Corden, chief executive of the Commission for the Compact, when the cross-sector fair play agreement was refreshed in December.

At the time, the Compact was still reeling from the breach by third sector minister Angela Smith and criticism that the new version didn’t cater for the needs of community groups and black and minority ethnic groups.

Corden said the new document should learn from the mistakes of the old version and be promoted better. But four months on, where is the noise?

The Compact advocacy programme at the NCVO used to publish an annual report saying how many cases it had investigated with details of some of the issues. It wasn’t afraid to shame the government department that committed serial breaches – or to pat on the back the good ones.

Since its feisty manager Saskia Daggett departed it has adopted a low-key, softly-softly approach to its work and this week told Third Sector it would not be producing an annual report in 2010.

Compact Voice, which represents the voluntary sector on Compact issues, has some examples of good practice on its website; the commission has sponsored some interesting thematic work. But nothing much has happened to generate news or create a sense that the Compact matters.

The emphasis seems to be on handling disputes quietly while making bland public utterings about the value of a strong Compact. This is barely creating a ripple, let alone a splash and if the situation remains then it’s likely that by the next election Third Sector will still have to explain what the Compact is to every public sector press officer and little progress will have been made.

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The Charity Commission’s guidance on political campaigning is proving a weak deterrent

The pre-election warning to charities by the Charity Commission chief executive Andrew Hind, telling them “not to engage in any party political activity or leave the charity open to the perception that they might be”, looks like one of those police clampdowns on cyclists riding on pavements: more request than threat.

It was always going to be difficult for the regulator to monitor comments by 180,000 organisations and hardly a day has passed without at least one charity endorsing or criticising a particular party.

But for sheer effrontery, the comments of Atlantic Bridge this week take some beating.

The charity is already under investigation for links to the Conservative Party, but this didn’t prevent Amanda Bowman, chief executive of its American arm, saying that David Cameron would be “much more amenable to shared US-UK foreign interests than Gordon Brown” and better for the special relationship.

Bowman then emailed Third Sector a statement, perhaps because she wouldn’t have been able to keep a straight face talking directly to us, saying her comments were ìnot intended as an endorsement of David Cameron, but rather as speculation that this relationship will hopefully be revitalised if the Tories win the general electionî.

This is a charity founded by shadow defence charity Liam Fox, who remains a trustee, and whose advisory council includes seven Tory MPs and a Tory peer. Margaret Thatcher is an honorary patron.

Bowman could hardly have nailed the charity’s political colours to the mast more clearly if she had stuck two fingers up to Gordon Brown while wearing a blue rosette and singing Land of Hope and Glory.

The commission won’t say how many complaints it has received about party politics. It claims the information is too hard to collate. All Atlantic Bridge can expect is advice and guidance after the election is over. The commission’s wrath looks a poor deterrent to political point scoring.

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Six-hour Tory love-in at the Acevo summit

How many ways can you say I love you? That was the dilemma facing members of the shadow Cabinet when they turned out in force yesterday to cosy up to a hundred or so charity delegates at the Conservative Party third sector summit.

Chief executives body Acevo is staging summits with the three main political parties to find out their plans for charities.

This one was held in Millbank, where Labour masterminded its 1997 election victory. Millbank is now the Conservative HQ and, as Acevo chief executive Stephen Bubb pointed out in his welcome speech, home of our dear Charity Commission. This caused some titters.

Shadow chancellor George Osborne got things going by talking about charities running more services. Shadow Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude then criticised Labour’s ‘initiative-itis’, but with a general election probably just seven weeks away delegates could have really done with a few more details.

In the absence of any new policies or initiatives and with six hours to fill, the speakers resorted to ways of saying how inspiring, professional, passionate, innovative and expert charities were.

The last time the Tories were in power, Dolly the Sheep was being cloned and the closest many Conservatives got to the voluntary sector was opening the annual village fete. Who would have thought then that 13 years later the party’s entire top team, bar its leader, would fill a lecture room overlooking the River Thames with humble charity folk?

The Tories have certainly come a long way, but time hung heavy. Engaging is all very well, but at this stage of the electoral cycle something more conclusive is required.

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Senior politicians were competing to impress charities last night

Loans are all the rage. Last night I joined around 200 people who went to all-hail them at a House of Commons reception organised by the Social Investment Business.

Proceedings were delayed by a parliamentary lobby of hundreds of kindly-looking middle-aged people wearing ‘Homeopathy Worked for Me’ t-shirts, which caused 30-minute delays getting through security.

We were then treated to speeches by not one, not two, but three senior politicians, each trying to outdo the other in their love of loans and charities in general.

First up was third sector minister Angela Smith, who effused about Futurebuilders, the government fund managed by the Social Investment Business that has awarded £125m of loans to charities to help them win public service contracts.

The fund, she said, was “one of the most innovative set up by government and investees had won 230 contracts worth £46m”. After finishing her speech she immediately left.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude then said “a rich and innovative range of finance would be available to charities under a Tory government”.

He said contract bidders could expect more payment by results, with payments coming later rather than sooner, and that loans were a good way of ensuring charities could bid with the big boys. I think this was being presented as good news.

Maude said the proposed social investment wholesale bank “had been in gestation longer than an elephant”, and pledged his party would get on with it. He then left.

Hilary Armstrong, Labour MP for North West Durham and former Minister for the Cabinet Office, topped everyone by saying the sector is “critical to how this country sees itself and how this country can move forward”. She didn’t elaborate on what she meant by this, but she did say social finance was one way of making it happen. And she did stick around to mingle afterwards.

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What’s going on at The Alzheimer’s Society?

Few articles in recent months have generated as many heated calls and emails to Third Sector as the restructuring at the Alzheimer’s Society.

The society, like many charities, wants to win more public sector contracts and the Department of Health’s publication last year of the first-ever National Dementia Strategy for England makes now a good time to act.

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