Charities and the wider voluntary and community sector are rightly careful to avoid becoming embroiled in partisan politics. They are aware of the legal constraints under which they operate. And many are understandably conscious of their financial reliance on the public sector which ultimately is controlled by politicians of the various major parties and a fear of upsetting them. They are focused and wish to remain focused on serving their beneficiaries.
So, as a rule and quite rightly, party politics is not for them.
However, the voluntary and community sector has always championed the rights and needs of the disadvantaged; fought for equality; and stood up for social justice. Now is the time to advocate these aims as never before. Cuts and many other government policies are taking the country in the opposite direction. Charities cannot ignore this.
Most trustee boards, members, beneficiaries and staff of most charities and VCS organisations have to grapple with the consequences of political decisions - both local and national ones. Public expenditure cuts and how these are allocated are political decisions. The increasing emphasis on procurement and contracting and the subsequent reduction in grant aid are political decisions. And when a local authority decides to use its own 'in-house' team to provide a service that might otherwise, and perhaps be better delivered by a voluntary organisation - it is ultimately making a political decision.
Charities and the VCS at local and national level will often oppose specific cuts; argue about the balance between contracting and grant aid; and seek to influence policy that will impact on the sector and/or their own beneficiaries. Indeed, in the case of this latter role, VCS organisations will often be directly approached by the public sector for their expert and 'user representative' opinion. They will usually be invited to participate alongside the public sector and business organisations in arrangements such as local strategic partnerships and health and wellbeing boards.
However, unless the public sector leaders and commissioners are able to demonstrate a sophisticated and mature relationship with the sector, there will be some caution by the latter about being too vocal (and too publicly vocal) about public sector policy or budget decisions. And this is particularly the case at the local level, in spite of the Compact and reassuring messages (and generally speaking, genuine integrity) from many local authorities and others.
It follows that a real challenge now facing many charities and the wider VCS is to understand and articulate why cuts are being made, why other public policies are being pursued and how national government policy impacts on local authorities and other local public agencies. Consequently and for example, attacks on a local authority which fail to recognise that it has had 25% of its funding cut by central government may in fact be both unfair and unreasonable. How that local authority determines the allocation of its own budgets is quite another matter and the sector should most definitely seek to engage in that process whilst perhaps showing more empathy to the local authority's strategic difficulties.
The bigger challenge for many charities and VCS bodies is how they should react and respond to the underlying macro-economic policies that are causing hardship for their beneficiaries and members; and in some cases for the voluntary organisation itself. For example, many disability charities are rightly appalled and drawing attention to the impact of government policies to 'reform' welfare benefits and to cuts to vital public services. Personally, I think that this is exactly what they should be doing and indeed, there is a strong argument that the volume should be turned up. However, what should these charities do or be saying about the Chancellor's economic and fiscal strategies which are the underlying cause of the problem?
Similarly charities and VCS organisations concerned with communities, building community resilience, addressing poverty and creating employment opportunities must find themselves wanting to question the basis of the Government's economic strategy and apparent lack of an effective and coherent growth strategy. But what are they to do?
The duty of charity trustees (and I contend, senior staff) is to speak out and to speak out for their beneficiaries; to oppose any measures that will adversely impact on these beneficiaries; and to make the case for alternative approaches. This can and is often done without crossing a party political line and by avoiding becoming embroiled too deeply in the politics. Some but not all organisations seem comfortable to act in this way in respect of specific policy areas but may be much more cautious when it comes to wider economic and fiscal policy and indeed the philosophies that underlie this.
As reports of increasing child poverty, greater marginalisation and other social consequences of current government policies become more obvious, is it not the time for the charity and VCS sector to speak out?
The national sector umbrella organisations may well be better placed than individual charities to raise questions about, challenge and offer alternatives to the Government's macro-economic policy. Self interest and positioning needs to be set to one side so that, ideally, they can do so in harmony which will have the dual benefit of emboldening the message and make it more difficult for others to pick them off one by one.
Now, let's be clear, I am not arguing that this should be a charities led party political crusade against the Government or for any other party (and the sector should be very wary about who might seek to jump on to its campaign). Charities are active and exist in a political environment and this is inescapable. So how to respond in an effective and prudent manner? This is not about one party versus another and the sector should not challenge the right of a government with a majority in Parliament to pursue its agenda and programme. Its challenge it to consider the implications of its agenda and to reconsider the agenda itself.
However, the sector should be ready to (and indeed, must) challenge any government at any time on behalf of its members and beneficiaries, using evidence-based analysis that demonstrates the consequences and potential future consequences of particular macro-policies.
One of the reasons for the sector's strong campaigning credentials is that not only does it address issues from a values base but also from the direct experience of its members and beneficiaries together with the expertise of its members and staff.
So in spite of the rhetoric and the 'Big Society' there is a real risk that Government policies may be politicising the charity and voluntary sector.
Over the next few months, I feel that the sector nationally has to be ready to re-think its approach and to develop the confidence to show more robust leadership by addressing the underlying causes of the hardship, misery and lost opportunities that its beneficiaries collectively are experiencing. In particular, the sector must speak out for beneficiaries rather more than for charities themselves.
The matter is urgent - and time is short. The cause of equality and social justice can't wait!
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