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Promises, Promises - How Will the Charitable Sector Fare in the 2015 Election?

28/04/2015 15:57 BST | Updated 28/06/2015 10:59 BST

As the May 2015 election moves closer it is interesting to see what might be offered to charities and social enterprises by the main parties. The value of the charitable sector to the economy is clear, especially in terms of job creation, but the manifesto priorities are rather mixed.

Lobbying Act and Social Value

One of the key areas of focus by the Labour and Green parties is a repeal of the Lobbying Act, marking the need to protect the right of charities to speak out. The Lobbying Act, which came into effect last year has undoubtedly made it more difficult for charities to campaign on behalf of their beneficiaries. However, undoubtedly we do need some legislation to ensure legality and transparency in election campaigning, and so finding a way through this complex agenda following the evidence of the current Lord Hodgson review will be important for the eventual successful party or coalition.

As for issues of social value, the Conservatives promise to innovate in how public services are delivered, including supporting the voluntary sector to become more involved. In health, ideas include charities helping to deliver a new cancer strategy. The Lib Dems too outline the potential for charities to fight killer diseases.

Similarly, Labour and the Lib Dems are clear on the potential for charities to help with early intervention to social problems, with a clear commitment to health and prison reform from the Lib Dems. However, overall, the explicit references to social value in all the manifestos is rather weak, despite a commitment across the board to seeing commissioning and procurement needing to improve.

There is however a welcome call for greater transparency about how charitable funding is allocated which will surely be greeted with open arms right across the sector, as it is so essential to ensuring and maintaining public confidence in charities.

Volunteering

Other Labour commitments include the increased use of volunteering and social action in schools and at work, alongside the Lib Dems, who go further in raising the status of youth work and youth workers, as well as supporting community services and volunteers working to combat loneliness, particularly for people in later life.

The Conservatives maintain their support for volunteering through the National Citizen Service and Step Up to Serve, which supports young people to help others. But from my perspective, it is difficult to really feel the impact of these initiatives, and it's therefore disappointing not to see a re-model or response to the learning from previous activity and the vast expenditure already made in these areas, surely job creation is a more immediate priority?

The Conservatives are also looking to encourage a workplace entitlement to volunteering leave for three days a year with pay for those working in large companies or the public sector. This is all very laudable, but rather goes against the grain of the very essence of volunteering which is surely about the free will of the individual involved to get involved with a charitable cause? I can't see this sort of top down pledge making a tangible difference to the take up of volunteering. The impetus needs to come from grass-roots upwards.

International Development

There are also some pledges to International Development, with the Green Party promising an increase in the foreign aid budget to 1 per cent of GDP potentially worth £6bn to the charity sector. The Conservatives would also expand the Aid Match scheme that matches charitable international development donations with government money.

Welfare spending and the Living Wage

Labour and the Tories both promise a cap on overall welfare spending, but the huge danger here is that it means that the decisions taken are short-termist and do not look at the wider systemic needs of our welfare systems and therefore cut off those most in need.

Labour and the Lib Dems both propose a replacement for the Work Programme, the work and training programme that supports people to find and stay in employment. The Lib Dems want to improve incentives for providers to reach those most in need. Much of the negative attention on this programme has focused on its inability to support those in the most vulnerable circumstances, and similarly most charities and service users have found the scheme's 'payments by results' structures difficult to navigate.

Finally, there are some interesting commitments on the Living Wage, with Labour promising a tax rebate to businesses signing up to the Living Wage. Additionally, both Conservatives and the Lib Dems say that no-one working 30 hours or less a week on the minimum wage would pay income tax in further employment commitments.

Intervention in charitable status

In more controversial areas, there is an interesting commitment from the Labour party to shred private schools of their charitable status if they don't actively pursue meaningful partnerships with schools in the state sector. I am broadly supportive of this, and whilst not wanting to see undue political interference in charitable activity, in my view, many private schools do not take their commitment to their charitable status seriously enough, and this also extends to the higher education sector. Some added scrutiny would be beneficial.

In the key area of housing, the Conservatives have proposed requiring housing associations to offer their tenants the right to buy their properties. This will make it hard for associations to continue their role as the main provider of affordable housing for vulnerable people. According to current law, charities are not supposed to dispose of assets for less than their full value, as assets should be used to fulfill charitable objectives. If tenants can dispose of these assets, housing associations may run into difficulties as social housing providers.

Social Enterprises

For social enterprises, there are broad commitments from each of the parties with Labour leading the way to support social enterprises to create social value, as well as supporting the social economy. Labour will also look to cut and then freeze business rates for social enterprises - invaluable for helping growth. The Lib Dems seem to be ahead of the rest on the potential of social enterprises to the economy with plans to establish a new incubator for social enterprises to develop innovative solutions to policy problems.

The Conservatives will look to strengthen the incentives that councils have to support enterprise and growth - and having spent time in Bristol last week with social enterprises that are part of this Social Enterprise City - being able to navigate time with the Council is considered a top priority for most emerging social enterprises, and when it doesn't work it's a key area of frustration.

In terms of funding, both the Lib Dems and the Green party look to support investment in social enterprises through community-banking sector support, with a co-operative development fund and a £2bn investment in a network of community banks respectively. The Labour party says that it would improve access to finance for cooperative and mutual organisations, with the Conservatives saying that they would scale up social impact bonds and payment by results, focusing on youth unemployment, mental health and homelessness. But again these funding mechanisms are fraught with complexity and difficulty and a commitment to simplify the relevant systems could prove to be more important than a commitment to the platforms themselves. We need action not rhetoric.

Free access to Museums and Galleries

And in other areas of the charity sector, each of the main parties pledges to keep the free access to museums and galleries that has been so valued. This one is a no brainer in protecting democratic access to our key cultural institutions, and it is great to see it so highly valued across all parties.

So come 7th May 2015, we wait to see which party or coalition will emerge triumphant. As ever, if only we could take the best ideas from each of the manifestos we might truly see a platform for the charity and social enterprise sector to thrive.