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February 25, 2015

Independence is fragile

For the past four years, Barings Foundation has funded a programme of work to scrutinise the extent to which the Voluntary Sector has been able to maintain its independence in the face a variety of pressures and criticisms from Government. While the focus of this work has been largely south of the border, there are important lessons (and warnings) for Scotland. The Panel’s fourth and final report was published this month.



Voluntary sector organisations are – rightly – highly valued for their connection and commitment to the people and communities they serve.  This allows them to meet real and sometimes previously hidden needs, to speak up without fear or favour and to deliver services in original and effective ways.  This independence – of purpose, voice and action – is what makes the voluntary sector special and enables it to serve the interests of those who might otherwise be left without support or a voice because they lack power or influence.

Nobody gains when the voice of the voluntary sector is seen as a threat rather than an asset by those in power. Yet this is what our inquiry has noted over the last few years. It damages democracy and good government, putting the independence of the voluntary sector at serious risk. But more importantly, it’s those with least power in society that lose the most, as voluntary organisations are a key voice and provide vital support for them. That’s why the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector – publishing its fourth and final report – is so concerned.

Take food banks. Chris Mould, chair of the Trussell Trust which gave emergency food to 900,000 people in 2013-14, told us last year that when the charity called for action to tackle the causes of food poverty, there were angry conversations with ministerial aides, accompanied by threats of closure. After asking for a meeting with Iain Duncan Smith, secretary of state for work and pensions, in a leaked letter he suggested the charity was simply seeking publicity to generate donations.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, an umbrella organisation for charities that help victims of domestic abuse, told us about “a loss of voice for a marginalised group who, by definition cannot speak out for themselves” and “who absolutely need the advocacy of charity.” Gagging clauses in contracts for public services, self-censorship because of the fear of losing vital funding and active threats by some local authorities to those voluntary organisations that do speak out are, she said, having a damaging effect on the services victims of domestic violence receive.

Much of this inevitably happens behind the scenes, but we are now seeing dismissive comments made openly by senior politicians. The chancellor, George Osborne, characterised charities as “anti-business” in a speech last year. And, Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, has questioned the validity of charities’ campaigning and their motives for challenging the Government in the courts.

Politicians are out of step with the public, 58% of whom agree that “charities should be able to campaign to change laws and government policies relevant to their work” But 78% of Conservative MPs, 23% of Labour MPs and 38% of Liberal Democrats said it was a negative thing for a charity “to be political,” , according to an nfpSynergy poll.

Why? Under successive governments, the voluntary sector has increasingly been seen as a contractual arm of the state. As the state looks to the sector to deliver public services, feedback is increasingly unwelcome, with gagging clauses becoming more common. Politicians are becoming defensive toward the campaigning voice of the voluntary sector. Perhaps it is because power is shifting: organisations like 38 Degrees can communicate direct with its over 2.5 million members where as membership of the main political parties stands at less than half a million.

The situation calls for decisive, clear leadership. But the Charity Commission,which is under increasing fire for lack of independence itself, has been equivocal. When Oxfam was referred to by the commission and publicly attacked by a number of MPs for the political nature of its campaigns, there was an ambiguous ruling by the Charity Commission after a six month silence. This is only likely to add to the confusion and chilling effect already created by the Lobbying Act 2014, which placed new restrictions on the ability of voluntary organisations to campaign. The Compact, an agreement that the government has signed, is in my opinion weak and toothless.

It’s time for a new settlement between government and the voluntary sector, to rebuild trust. This means government working with the sector, listening and involving it in decision-making through genuine consultation and creating new platforms for public dialogue. It also means charities and the Charity Commission taking the lead and ensuring that legitimate freedoms to speak and to act are protected.

Checks on the voice of the sector must be reversed and the next government should review and reform public sector commissioning, giving targeted financial support for the sector. Voluntary sector leadership is critical, too. I strongly support the Baring Foundation’s decision to find support for a new commission on the future of the voluntary sector, as it would help lay the foundations for this new settlement.

The alternative is a diminished society – one in which charities are too scared to act and people in real need lose out.