The Blog

Time for National Charity and VCS Bodies to Lead a National Discourse

These are going to be critical months for the voluntary and community sector (VCS) and charities more generally - and this is especially the case for the national sector bodies. It will also be a critical period for all of us and there needs to be an open debate about the future of society which these bodies can lead.

One consequence of fixed term parliaments is that the date of the next general election is known well in advance - which in this case happens to be May 2015, or in just over eight months' time.

These are going to be critical months for the voluntary and community sector (VCS) and charities more generally - and this is especially the case for the national sector bodies. It will also be a critical period for all of us and there needs to be an open debate about the future of society which these bodies can lead.

Earlier this year, the NCVO published its manifesto for 2015. This was a well-argued attempt to persuade the major political parties to consider the needs of the sector and more importantly, the communities and individuals which charities and the VCS serve and often represent. Personally, I thought it struck a good balance between addressing some major concerns and opportunities for the sector, and the aspirations and wellbeing of the sector's beneficiaries. In my view, other national bodies need to support and complement this NCVO initiative.

However, simply publishing robust and comprehensive sets of policy demands and wish-lists will not suffice. It is going to be vital that the sector 'collectively' holds the feet of the leaders, spokespersons and policy makers of all the political parties firmly to the fire. In particular, platitudinous and benign responses are insufficient. Very specific policies need be proposed and very clear, unambiguous commitments sought from the politicians.

There is a real risk that all the parties will wish to be seen to be supportive of charities and the VCS but will fail to demonstrate this in practical terms when they develop and publish policy. Every aspect of every policy adopted for the general election by all the parties should consider and identify the implications, dangers and opportunities for the charity and VCS sector; and explain how, if in government, the parties would work in partnership with the sector to maximise the opportunities and minimise the risks.

Political parties have to respect the right of charities and the VCS to challenge their policies and offer alternatives. They also have to respect, where appropriate, the sector's right and duty to challenge and offer alternative ideas on a range of issues including taxation, inequality and poverty, redistribution, public expenditure, welfare systems and policies, international policy (in as much as it impacts of people's welfare), the environment, human rights (including the rights of minorities and marginalised groups) and much more.

Of course, charities must not identify, challenge or promote the policies of one particular party in a partisan manner. Rather, they must hold true to their missions, values and the needs and experience of their beneficiaries. And they have a duty to speak up whatever the current Lobbying Act (the so-called "gagging act") may try to prevent them from doing. The national sector bodies have to be robust in defending this right and demanding that the next government should rescind those sections of the Lobbying Act that potentially could undermine the role and voice of the sector.

The public service reforms, the expenditure cuts and others policies of the last four years should be analysed (using robust evidence) by the sector and it should not be afraid from publishing the results of this analysis; or an analysis of the impact of the previous government's programmes. Indeed, I would expect those charities and VCS bodies with the capacity (including the national sector bodies) would also, wherever possible, contribute to informing the pre-election debate with analysis and assessment of proposed new policies. These are legitimate and appropriate actions for good charitable organisations to undertake. Of course, again they must ensure that their interventions are non-partisan and are founded on rigorous, evidence-based assessment and analysis, and reflect the true views and voices of their beneficiaries.

In reality, it is most unlikely that there will be a significant (if any) increase in public expenditure, whichever party/parties form the next government for some years to come; and indeed, there could well be further reductions. Accordingly, the sector needs to have clear policy responses in response to this which could range from the advocacy of different macro-economic strategies, the potential impact on communities and vulnerable people, and the sector's role as service provider and potentially as a source of volunteers and charitable finance. In terms of the sector as service provider, it will be essential that all the political parties are aware of what the sector regards as its role and on what terms it may be willing to engage. No longer should the sector simply accept whatever governments demand or expect of it. This is another example of where the national sector bodies have a very important role to play. No more 'Work Programme' type contracts and inappropriate transfer of risk to the sector. And no more expectation that the sector will always be willing or able to subsidise public contracts, or to play a secondary role to major business sector corporates.

Political parties have to be persuaded to radically reform public procurement to ensure that collaboration with the charity and VCS sector is adopted in preference to competitively contracted outsourcing. Whilst most such procurement and partnership working occurs at the local government level and across the wider devolved public sector such as the NHS, central government has a crucial and vital role: to align legislation with policy goals; to set the tone; and, for example, to strengthen the Public Services Social Value Act. I hope that all political parties will agree to reviews of: public procurement; potential funding approaches, including the role of social investment; contractual income including payment by results which so often excludes charities and the VCS from bidding; the use of grant funding; and new forms of hybrid and partnership funding from public, charitable, corporate and individual sources. Such reviews should be jointly designed and commissioned by government and the sector.

Another area where there needs to be a robust stance taken in advance of the general election by the sector national bodies is to press for a major review and reform of charity regulation and its wider legislative base. The 21st century requires 21st approaches - not those of centuries ago. Such a review should ideally, be undertaken collaboratively by the sector and government.

Many charities and VCS organisations are struggling to survive and some are failing to do so. Others are being forced to change radically in order to be sustainable, whilst others are evolving to remain relevant to their mission and beneficiaries. And yet all the political parties are proudly saying that they want a strong and vibrant civil society. Inevitably, there is a real risk of a major disconnect emerging, which will lead to great disappointment and potential disharmony between politicians and the sector.

Consequently my final suggestion to the national charity and VCS sector bodies is to engage politicians in a debate about the very nature of a modern democratic society, which addresses: society's values; the role of civil society; the nature of a pluralist democracy; citizen engagement; the role of the state at all levels; equality versus inequality; extreme wealth versus poverty; taxation and redistribution; social cohesion; personal and collective responsibilities; future of public services; the limits to the role of the market and its regulation; the contribution of social action; and much, much more about the nature of our society. I recognise that this may seem over-ambitious but frankly, these issues, however complex, will have to be addressed in the period following the 2015 general election. Therefore, the debate has to start before the election and the views of the parties flushed and fleshed out.

The charity and VCS sector is well placed to campaign for, promote and participate in such a debate, and to agitate for greater social justice and fairness. This has been its role over the centuries. Much economic, social and political change being generated by its powerful interventions and its willingness never to be afraid to speak and act.

There is every potential for a very stimulating, challenging and exciting eight months ahead.

It is the time for the national sector bodies to be at the fore!