Many people in the voluntary sector will feel a small glow of satisfaction at the election of Ed Miliband as Labour leader, no matter what they think of his politics, the mode of his election or the fraternal ‘psychodrama’.
Posts By: Stephen Cook
Lord Wei, the government’s big society guru, weighed in recently with a warning that some charities and social enterprises had become too bureaucratic because they received most of their funding from the state. “They have ended up becoming big charity, not big society,” he said.
This chimes with Conservative arguments in recent years about the “Tescoisation” of charities, and with the party’s often-stated preference for local, community-based organisations. This government does not much like larger charities that get state funding, many of which are contemplating the future with some trepidation.
Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, responded by arguing in his lecture last week that “big society requires big charity as well as local charity. Properly speaking, big society means new life being breathed into the state-charity partnership.” He urged the government not to forget that the partnership between the state and the third sector is rooted in our history, has enjoyed cross-party consensus and is crucial to the well-being of society.
As we await the public spending review, it’s hard to predict in any detail what’s going to happen. The government is committed, as was Labour, to making it easier for the sector to bid for public contracts on a level playing field. That’s good in its way, if it actually happens, but public contracts are likely to be fewer and smaller, producing a countervailing effect.
The Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, also told Third Sector recently that the government was keen to open up public services to new providers. But he emphasised that it was interested in “community-based solutions.” That doesn’t sound encouraging for the bigger voluntary organisations.
The most that can be said with certainty is that the state is going to shrink, and with it many parts of the sector that depend on the state.† And when such large cuts are made so fast, many babies will go out with the bathwater.
There are some senior figures in the Conservative Party who are not very keen on campaigning charities. Oliver Letwin, now Minister of State at the Cabinet Office with the role of providing policy advice to the Prime Minister, was more vocal than most about this before the election.
There is a certain irony, then, surrounding the case of Atlantic Bridge, an educational charity which was set up by Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for Defence, and has had Conservative luminaries including the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, on its advisory board.
The irony comes because this week’s regulatory report by the Charity Commission on Atlantic Bridge leaves the indelible impression that this is a campaigning organisation. It devotes itself to advancing a version of the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US that was in the ascendant in the Thatcher-Reagan years.
But the commission’s rap over the knuckles for Atlantic Bridge comes not because it† has campaigned – campaigning is permissible for charities if it is pursuit of their charitable objects. The censure comes because it promoted a view of transatlantic relations that was closely aligned with the Conservative Party.
The commission has told Atlantic Bridge that if it wants to conform to its educational charitable purpose it should approach its subject matter in a manner that is less party political, and that to demonstrate its public benefit it should provide more information about its activities.
This time it’s the Tories. But the mind drifts back to the case of the Smith Institute, which was similarly criticised by the commission two years ago for not keeping sufficient distance from the policies of the Labour Party. Some politicians and policy wonks, it seems, just can’t resist trying to use charities for political purposes.
The commission said in 2008 that it was going to produce additional guidance about how how think tanks can conform with the requirement for educational charities to provide public benefit, but this has not yet materialised.
In the meantime some commentators have suggested that the regime for think tanks should be more relaxed than for other charities because their reason for being, and the benefits they bring, are essentially political† – and often specifically party political.
This is arguably true. But perhaps the best way of squaring the circle is to veer the other way and be much more careful about granting charitable status to think tanks. Indeed, when you look at the particular focus of Atlantic Bridge and the people involved in it, you have to wonder how it ever got charitable status in the first place.
The Institute of Fundraising has been holding more meetings about a campaign it is planning which has been provisionally called Right to Ask although it has also been mooted that it could be called Right to Give.
Francis Davis, a policy adviser on the big society, has published a paper called The Diamond Dividend in which he estimates that ¬£4bn more could be raised for charity if people gave one per cent of their income.
Only ¬£4bn? He is no doubt wise to be restrained in his estimates, but a back-of-the-envelope calculation based on a recent survey suggests the sum could be a great deal more.
If, for the sake of argument, each of those donors earned ¬£20,000 and gave one per cent, their gifts would total ¬£200 rather than ¬£30 ‚Äď a six-fold increase that would take total individual donations from ¬£10bn to ¬£60bn. The latter figure is getting on for twice the total income of the sector in recent years.
Back to the real world: when you remember what‚Äôs coming in the emergency Budget, and the likely effect on people‚Äôs pockets, there‚Äôs every chance giving will slip rather than climb in the coming months.
But you never know. Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, told Third Sector before the election that he was going to give one per cent this year. Davis wants to Queen to urge everyone to do the same ‚Äď a sort of ‚Äėone gives one per cent‚Äô campaign.
Let‚Äôs not get carried away. For the next year or two, the sector will do well to continue to receive the current level of individual giving. Whoever finds the key to a significant increase will be a good candidate for the Nobel prize.
David Cameron spent a lot of time in opposition playing down comparisons between his politics and those of the Thatcher government. When he came into power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, it seemed their influence might strengthen the government‚Äôs credentials on social justice.
There was the usual fighting talk when Angela Smith lost her seat at South Basildon and East Thurrock at the election: the seat‚Äôs only on loan to you Tories, we‚Äôll be back, and so on.
So off we go with the name game once more.
A couple of years ago the Conservatives said the Office of the Third Sector would be renamed the Office of† Civil Society to denote the increased importance they wanted to give it. Then they said there had been a rethink and money was too tight for such a bigging-up. And just before the election they went back to plan A, not because money was less tight again but because David Cameron didn’t like the term ‘third sector.’
He was probably influenced by the sentimentalists who argue that it should, if anything, be the ‘first sector’ and that ‘third sector’ is too easily equated with ‘third rate.’ So the Office of Civil Society it is, and Nick Hurd rejoices in the name of Minister for Civil Society. Well, at least they stopped short of the Office of Big Society.
But the questions still remain: what is civil society, and do people understand the term any more readily than ‘third sector’, or the various other unsatisfactory alternatives that have been touted?
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has firmly hitched its wagon to the ‘civil society’ horse, as has one sector media organisation. The NCVO Almanac makes it clear that civil society, in its view, includes universities and trade associations, for example. Does the NCVO, or the media organisation, or the new OCS, take a day to day interest in or have any responsibility for, those parts of society? Of course they don’t. Maybe there’s a grandiosity and feel-good effect created by the term. At least the NCVO has stopped short of† becoming the National Council for Civil Society Organisations.
‘Civil society’ is a term imported from countries with entirely different political, social and philosophical traditions. Most people in Britain don’t readily recognise what it is meant to mean, and the attempt to use it creates a raft of inconsistency and contradiction. Are charities, trade associations and housing associations really in the same boat?
At the weekend,† some Tory MPs were complaining anonymously that the big society idea had not gone down well on the doorstep and might even have played a part in denying the Conservatives an overall majority.
Headless chickens come to mind as we watch Labour and Conservatives running around in search of the best way to neutralise the Clegg effect. It‚Äôs brought the election alive in a slightly disturbing way ‚Äď might we actually end up with something daring, like scrapping Trident or joining the Euro?
Of special interest to the voluntary sector is that David Cameron has not reached for his ‚Äėbig society‚Äô idea as his party looks desperately for a way to revive its fortunes. Quite the opposite, if a story in yesterday‚Äôs Guardian is to be believed. It seems that the idea is being quietly pushed into the background.
Some of the remarks from unnamed shadow cabinet ministers are quite savage. ‚ÄúThe ‚Äėbig society‚Äô is bollocks,‚ÄĚ one was quoted as saying. Another attributed the idea to manifesto supremo Oliver Letwin and commented: ‚ÄúWe need to turn his Hegelian dialectic into voter friendly stuff.‚ÄĚ
The ‚Äėbig society‚Äô is a nice ideal ‚Äď a society where we all care and share and participate. But it will always be seen by some as an unrealistic pipe dream, and by others as an elaborate fig leaf for ‚Äėsame old Tories, same old cuts.‚Äô One things seems crystal clear: it‚Äôs not much of a vote winner in the current state of play.