Posts Tagged: Conservative Party

Ed: isn’t he our man?

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’.

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Was the Charity Commission right not to publicise the findings of its investigation into the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative?

The long-awaited verdicts from the Charity Commission on the last two of the charities it investigated over political activity during the pre-election period are out.

Both the employment charity Tomorrow’s People, which was probed over the appearance of its chief executive in the Conservative Party’s election manifesto, and the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, which was investigated over claims it emailed supporters asking them to vote for the Labour Party, received “advice and guidance” from the commission about political campaigning, but neither received any further sanctions.

On the face of it, the cases seem quite similar. So why did the commission write a full report and press release on the Tomorrow’s People case, but nothing about the Tony Blair one?

We would never have known about the latter had the complainant, Conservative MP Greg Hands, not leaked the commission’s letter about the case to the Sunday Times.

The commission says it chose to publicise the Tomorrow’s People case because many other charities might find themselves in a similar position and it would be useful for them to understand the rules.

The Tony Blair case, it claims, is so unlikely to be replicated elsewhere that it was not worth publicising.

Granted, very few charities have been set up by former Prime Ministers. But the Blair case was, at its heart, about the sharing of data between affiliated organisations: something that seems likely to affect far more charities than requests to appear in political party election manifestos.

It would be interesting to hear charities’ views on which of the cases they found more relevant.

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Should think tanks be charities at all?

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.

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Nick Hurd claimed to be serious at his first meet-and-greet, but mutterings were audible

Earlier this week I went to the first meet-and-greet by Nick Hurd with the sector since his appointment as the new charities minister.

It wasn’t exactly at the coalface: it was a small gathering of around 50 senior charity staff at a smart central London hotel. But it was a good debut for Hurd. He charmed his audience by joking that the Downing Street launch of the ‘big society’ agenda was the first, and probably the last, time he’d have his bum on a seat at the Cabinet table.

He said he was not allowed to use the phrase ‘third sector’ any more because “the boss doesn’t like it”. And in a short speech, he reiterated his three priorities. You’ve guessed it: making it easier to run a charity; getting more resources to the sector and making it easier for charities to work with the state. “I know I keep repeating this, but I’ll repeat it until people understand,” he said.

The chatter after Hurd left (he dashed straight off to speak about workplace giving at a House of Lords dinner) suggested the sector has warmed to its new representative.

Guests welcomed his 18 months’ experience shadowing the post, saying they hoped this marked a break from Labour’s revolving door of third sector ministers. And they were glad that the rhetoric about supporting charities, at least, seemed to stem from Cameron himself.

But they raised doubts about whether Hurd’s well-intentioned words would translate into anything tangible. One senior figure expressed frustration that Hurd seemed to see volunteering as a catch-all solution without understanding that supporting volunteers and paying their expenses could cost charities as much as the minimum wage.

And many expressed serious concerns that government grants would be cut before they were due to expire, and that Cameron and Hurd’s enthusiasm for involving charities in service provision would not filter down to local authorities if the private sector offered similar services more cheaply.

In that context, Hurd’s words were perhaps carefully chosen: “I hope to send a serious message about our will and our serious intent.”

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Volunteer or else! How a nudge could turn into coercion

Is the concept of volunteering as time freely given to the community being subtly undermined?

A couple of recent developments suggest that, while no one is being coerced exactly into volunteering, it could soon become an expectation which influences whether individuals get housing or progress in their career. The carrot of material self-interest is certainly being dangled in front of people to encourage them to volunteer and perhaps the stick is being readied in the background

In March, Manchester City Council announced a new policy on access to its council homes. New bands were established to prioritise access to housing for particular kinds of people. Community workers and volunteers who make their neighbourhoods “a good place to live, work and play” are to be moved up a band, so they can be re-housed faster.

Meanwhile, the Conservative election manifesto promised to transform the civil service into the “civic service” by recognising “participation in social action” in civil servants’ appraisals.

We don’t yet know if this policy will be adopted by the Lib-Con coalition, but the intention seems to be to make volunteering a factor in whether public sector workers receive pay rises or promotions (although the likelihood of public sector workers getting pay rises in the current climate, even if they volunteered six nights a week, is pretty slim).

The idea is reminiscent of then-CBI director-general Digby Jones’s draconian proposal in 2004 to withhold pay rises from staff in the private and public sectors unless they could show they have volunteered for a charity. You will volunteer or else!

The Conservatives aren’t going that far, but they clearly want to muster as many forms of encouragement as they can to get the public to contribute to their ‘big society’. Their manifesto also promised to “use the latest insights from behavioural economics to encourage people to make volunteering and community participation something they do on a regular basis”.

The popular term for this is “nudging” and economist Richard Thaler, co-author of the behavioural economics manifesto Nudge, has been lined up as an adviser for the new government.

This creates a dilemma for volunteering organisations. One issue is whether those nudged will actually feel cajoled or bribed and resent the need to volunteer. The other is whether people will begin volunteering for completely ulterior motives.

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Cameron pushed his big society, but his charity audience was not convinced

Yesterday I watched David Cameron give a speech about his big society agenda at a meeting hosted by think tank the Centre for Social Justice. 

Previous announcements by the Conservatives about the idea have been relatively well-received by much of the national press, so I was interested to see how an audience that consisted largely of voluntary sector workers would respond. 

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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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