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Can Charities Benefit From The Snap Election?

02/05/2017 11:29

The announcement of a UK general election on June 8 2017 was a surprise to most. However, with Brexit fast approaching, perhaps it should not have been unexpected.

Usually the political parties have some 12 months to develop a manifesto but with these now being hurriedly put in place, I wonder what some of the sectors that are not on the front-line of Brexit, such as charities, might expect.

With tight deadlines, it's reasonable to expect that the manifestos might draw heavily on 2015 election policies and that the chance to include anything radical is likely to be limited.
Additionally, with Charity Commission election campaigning guidance and the Lobbying Act now firmly in place, charities have got warier of trying to influence opinion at election time. Many will find it difficult to achieve real authority at short notice. It will also be harder to engage with political candidates, as many potential MPs that might stand have not even been selected yet!

Of course, for charity workers, elections can put a frustrating hold on key decisions, or progressing discussions with Government. Since the 2015 election, many of the Conservative Party pledges such as the three-day volunteering policy for the public sector have still to be legislated, and it could be that many of these policies now don't get to see the light of day. Other issues that might get swept under the carpet might include charging charities for the Charity Commission, or any meaningful Government response to the House of Lords committee report on charities. We may also see a further delay on firm guidance for charities about the use of data and fundraising regulation.

So whilst we wait for manifestos to be delivered, I thought I would put some thought to the policies that I'd dearly like to see from all parties. We can then watch this space as to what might emerge!

Brexit policies
We need to ensure that Brexit doesn't mean weakening or removing important safeguards for people.

Like many other sectors, charities will want to make sure that European nationals are able to stay in the UK and that visas are prioritised for key areas such as social care and medical research.

We also have the huge issue of how to replace EU funding to charities. Whilst much of the bureaucracy of applying for these grants will not be missed, we will need to find replacement funding that is more fit for purpose, especially in key areas such as employment and skills training, and to have greater transparency at local authority level as to where such funds emanate from.

Government commissioning
Of course, we are facing steep funding cuts across the board in statutory and local Government. Grant funding to the voluntary sector fell from £6.1bn in 2003/4 to £2.8bn in 2013/14, according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

Within this context, we need processes that help charities to access Government funds fairly, and to support them to develop their leadership and governance to deliver funding at a high level. Restoring public trust in charities is everything, and Government needs to play its part in avoiding funding scandals such as Kids Company.

Similarly, whilst we see a commitment from all parties to charities being involved in Government commissioning, often the reality is fraught with difficulty. All parties need to develop key policies that help charities bring the best of their offers to the delivery of public services, and for the sector to be realistic about what can't be achieved.

For example, in the hot potato area of social care needs, the charity sector has a clear role to play in areas such as addressing staffing where we hear of troubling statistics such as 900 care workers a day quitting their roles. Surely this is where joined up collaboration and campaigning from the charity sector could actually help Government assess the options, and it shouldn't be deprioritized amidst the demands of Brexit. In January this year, Theresa May set out her vision for a Shared Society. The realization of that would be welcomed and it would be good to see concrete plans for how to mobilize the talent within the charity sector to correct what she described as "the injustice and unfairness that divides us."

International Development
The International aid budget is one of the more controversial areas for the electorate. The Department for International Development (DfID) spent 12.1 billion pounds ($15 billion) in 2015. Two years ago Britain enshrined in law its commitment to spend 0.7 percent of its national income on aid every year, making it the first major industrialised nation to meet the U.N. target, and major British charities have urged political parties not to scrap the pledge.

Whilst, of course, this commitment is something we should really be proud of, we know that the policy doesn't play well to the wider electorate and in fact many MPs will not talk about it for fear of upsetting constituents that would rather see this funding spent at home.

The issue is not helped by high profile tabloid awareness raising of issues of misspent grants or reports that contractors are getting rich off the back of the aid budget.

My personal view is that we should keep the aid target but the way that grants and aid are distributed needs a radical overhaul - DfID needs a major rethink, and we need to build the public's trust and pride in this area.

Three day volunteering pledge
I am no fan of imposing 'volunteering' on people, but this was one of the more promising bits of proposed legislation in 2015, and it will be interesting to see what will happen to the Government's unfulfilled manifesto pledge to charities - i.e. to introduce three days a year of volunteering for employees at large companies and Government bodies.

If this was achieved we might see some real culture change and more awareness about the role of charities in public service. Indeed, there are key areas where we desperately need highly skilled volunteers, not least in the area of Trustees, where it's estimated that over 50% of charities are looking for skilled volunteers to take on leadership roles. Some clever Government-funded interventions could go a huge way to making change if this pledge came to pass.

National Citizen Service
I have been a long-term critic of the National Citizen Service programme, which I view as a vanity project of the last Conservative administration. The recent Commons Public Accounts Committee report outlined the programme as a waste of resources which was unable to demonstrate its impact. Surely in this climate this £150m of public funding should now be spent on creating jobs for young people? Our 16-17 year olds need long-term solutions, not short-term gratification.

Free access to Museums and Galleries
And of course then there are the no brainer vote winners, such as keeping the free access to museums and galleries that has been so valued. This sort of activity is vital to protect democratic access to our key cultural institutions. Let's hope it remains highly valued across all parties.

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