The UK General Election is only four months away. This will be a very significant general election with potentially major implications for the future of the state, the economy, society and consequently for the charity and voluntary and community sector.
The last five years have been challenging ones for the sector and for very many of its beneficiaries and their communities. Public expenditure pressures have not helped and these are certainly going to continue whatever the result on 7th May. However, the challenges have arisen from more that cuts to expenditure, public services and support for the sector. They have also been as result of public policy choices in areas such as 'welfare reform', housing, and criminal justice made by the Government.
Political rhetoric has not often been matched by policies and political action. There has even been legislation to curtail the sector's freedom to speak out on behalf of beneficiaries and to challenge government policy through the Lobbying Act or, as it has better become known to some as "the Gagging Act".
The political parties are already off the starting blocks. The campaign has begun. The voluntary and community sector and charities more generally cannot afford not to engage with the campaign.
The next four months are going to be very important for charities and wider voluntary and community sector. There is a real opportunity to influence policy commitments and to generate public debate on issues that will impact deeply on beneficiaries and communities. This is not a call for charities to become involved in partisan politics but rather as desire for them to fulfil their natural role as the voice of the disadvantaged, the marginalised and those who society and more particularly politicians too easily ignore or even worse, inflict hardship on.
The NCVO has already published a comprehensive manifesto - http://www.ncvo.org.uk/images/documents/policy_and_research/ncvo-manifesto-2015.pdf which has been presented to the political parties and has attracted some (though for reasons that defy explanation) not nearly enough public discourse. I thoroughly commend this publication.
However, I also urge the wider sector at a national and local level to proactively engage with politicians, parties and candidates (from all parties) over the next four months as never before. This should include promoting the NCVO manifesto and that of other national sector bodies and individual charity's contributions too. In addition, it should include drawing attention to injustices, unfairness and adverse consequences of existing or proposed policies as well as acknowledging positive ones.
My advice to the sector is to focus primarily on the needs, aspirations and choices of their beneficiaries and their communities rather than on the sector's more internal concerns. That said, the latter should not be ignored, for only a strong and independent sector will be able to deliver its mission on behalf of its beneficiaries.
If my advice is heeded, for many smaller voluntary and community organisations and their local and national infrastructure bodies, I would expect the focus of their pre-election engagement to be on:
- the promotion of social justice, fairness and greater equality
- the protection of core public services especially in health, social care, child care and education
- social housing
- the need to align social growth and investment in social capacity with economic growth and capital investment
- employment and skills/talent development
- localism and democratic renewal, which includes community organisations, voluntary social action, and the sector's core role in civil society
It will be very hard and often impossible to engage in debates on these subjects without addressing deeper macro-policy agendas such as the role of the state, the level of public expenditure, fiscal and taxation, employment legislation, redistribution (between regions, places and people) and much more. The sector should not be afraid of this but must be clear why it is addressing these topics and be ready and able to demonstrate such, from the perspective of their missions and their beneficiaries.
The sector, including local community organisations and their representative bodies, will also wish to address issues such as:
- the repeal of those elements of the Lobbying Act which reduce the ability of the sector to speak for its beneficiaries
- a comprehensive review of charity law including regulation and taxation, with the aim of modernising it for the twenty first century, including enshrining in legislation the protection of the sector's independence and right to "voice"
- level of public funding and support for the sector itself at a national and local level
- the importance of the sector's voice role and the fact that it is not simply a service provider, and certainly not simply a provider of contracted public services
- strengthening the Social Value Act in scope and enforcement
- the importance of grant aid and not only contract funding
- collaboration between the public, and voluntary and community sectors rather than always being a relationship based on competitive procurement - and where there is such procurement, why this should not be biased against the smaller charitable organisations/SME's and should not default to prime-subcontractor and/or payment by result models
- how the sector can often innovate and reach marginalised communities in ways that the state often finds hard; and how it can lead prevention programmes
In order to gain the respect and a hearing from politicians at the national and local level, it will be essential for the sector to try and speak with one or at least similar voices on these issues, but to do so in ways that genuinely relate the specific organisation's mission and interests of their beneficiaries. I fear that politicians, the media and many of the public will not be willing to listen to what may seem like special pleading from a vested interest - however much we in the sector feel that it is a selfless sector.
Larger charities will have their own agendas. All the sector should be able to coalesce around many of the issues, which I have listed above. It would be great to witness this happen, and national sector leaders (in my opinion) have a fundamental duty to aim for it to happen.
As a trustee and a passionate advocate of strong and vibrant charity, voluntary and community sectors, I very much hope that the sector will make its collective and individual voices heard between now and 7th May. If we succeed, we will be in a much stronger position to claim our voice and place of influence after the polls have closed and a government has been elected. The sector needs to engage in the campaign now and to do so with gusto.