What do Lords think about the future of civil society?

back_britains_charities_v5Although the House of Commons recently dissolved for summer recess, Parliament is still in session in the form of the House of Lords, and last week saw peers gather to discuss the future of civil society.

The debate was initiated by Baroness Prosser, A Labour peer who is also Deputy Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Kicking off the debate, Baroness Prosser spoke of the vastness of civil society, and argued that the Government is using charities and voluntary groups to fill the gap in the provision of services created by austerity measures. She went on to argue that further cuts to local authorities will threaten the future of charities who are also struggling to cope with an increase in demand – as the Back Britain’s Charities campaign recently highlighted in an event in Parliament.

Next to speak was Lord Hodgson (Conservative), who was responsible for the review of the Charities Act, which included 100 recommendations for the Government aimed at strengthening the charity sector. He argued that measures such as the introduction of the Public Services (Social Value) Act –  piloted through Parliament by Back Britain’s Charities campaign supporter Chris White MP – the Small Charitable Donations Act and the development of the social investment market are giving charities the opportunity to maximise donations they receive as well as giving them the chance to access new markets.

The House heard further speeches from Baroness Barker, who chose to define civil society as ‘the point at which the statutory, voluntary and private sectors come together to make a different to the common good and the lives of citizens.’ She referenced a recent report by Dr Catherine Walker from the Directory of Social Change, which was recently presented to the Parliamentary Inquiry on Growing Giving and raises concerns about levels of corporate giving. In particular, the report focuses on the location of charities that receive funding from companies, and found that donations are overwhelming concentrated in Greater London. Baroness Barker also warned that the way in which the Government is commissioning services means that charities are struggling to access contracts, which is something that CAF’s Funding Good Outcomes paper raised concerns about.

Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick made an interesting contribution, arguing that the way we view civil society has to develop beyond simplistic cash terms and instead focus on engagement terms. He raised BT’s Net Good commitment, which means that for every tonne of carbon consumed by BT it removes three from the atmosphere. At CAF, we’ve been calling on businesses to demonstrate their positive work to our Growing Giving inquiry, and to show how they are making a positive contribution to society. As Lord Hastings argued, the relationship between businesses and charities is growing in both stature and importance, and developing relationships with as well as learning from businesses is crucial to allow charities to maximise their potential.

Later on, Baroness Tyler of Enfield told the House of Lords about her work as co-chair of the Parliamentary Inquiry on Growing Giving, and told her fellow peers about the importance of charities getting young people involved in giving at an early age. She explained that young people are likely to support charities that are clearly aligned with their personal interests, and went on to argue that businesses need to do more to give employees an opportunity to give whilst at work, citing CAF’s recent research on payroll giving which found that demand far outstrips supply.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen was next to speak and used the joint CAF & NCVO UK Giving 2012 report to explain to Lords that charities are faced with a 20% drop in donations. She praised the work of the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights team – carried out in partnership with CAF – which found that using ‘nudge’ methods to give such as using a photograph of an employee to make giving more personal or reminding them that they can give in their will could help to increase giving. This study found that many people would consider giving more to good causes, and Baroness Gibson asked whether the Government would consider taking any action to put these concepts into practice. On that note, Lord Janvrin agreed that people in Britain are extremely charitable, and brought attention to CAF’s research which shows that people want to protect their spending on charitable donations, even when there are such severe pressures on household budgets.

Responding to the debate for the Government, Lord Wallace of Saltaire told the House of Lords that the Government is “providing as many incentives as we can to encourage companies to expand payroll giving,” and argued that companies and the CBI should also be encouraging it. In addition, he argued that there is a need to change the ‘moral atmosphere’ so that people remember they are part of a national society, as well as their local community, and take responsibility to contribute in a meaningful way.

It’s great that the House of Lords held such an interesting debate, and well worth a read for anyone with an interest in civil society – whichever definition of the term that you subscribe to. At CAF, we’re extremely proud to see our research quoted in Parliament, and we’ll continue to produce pieces of work about the sector to help people get a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities that charities face. In the meantime, readers of the debate may notice a difference and style and tone compared to the House of Commons. Come back next week to find out more about the differences between the two houses, and to find out about how the House of Lords operates.

Steve Clapperton

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