With the election campaign starting in earnest, now seems a good time to reflect back on a piece of work that CAF carried out in partnership with ACEVO ahead of party conference season last year. In order to give the charity sector a high profile in manifestos and over the duration of the election campaign, we asked prominent politicians to offer their thoughts on the future of the sector. This article will focus on the Liberal Democrats, with insights into Labour and the Conservatives to come in the next fortnight.
The foreword to The Yellow Book of the Voluntary Sector by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the first essay, by Julian Huppert MP, look at the philosophical relationship between liberalism and the charitable sector. Clegg explains that charities empower people and can act as engines of social mobility, and argues that using charities in the provision of public services can be an important way of challenging traditional power structures.
Huppert cites the value of the charitable sector but calls for greater awareness of the work that voluntary groups play in communities. He argues that Lib Dems should ensure that charities are free from interference to allow them to flourish, but have access to training and guidance for development where appropriate. He goes on to call for continued improvement of giving mechanism such as Payroll Giving, whilst acknowledging the need to digitalise Gift Aid. Martin Horwood, a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Civil Society, sees similarities between the Lib Dems and many smaller charities – both driven by volunteers and a commitment to community action – and makes the case that his party should have a natural affinity with the sector.
Concerns about the implementation of the Lobbying Act remain, with Jemima Bland arguing that charities can help to encourage participation in democracy, and stressing that the charity world is not abstract from active political engagement. Bland advocates the role of the charity sector in building a sustainable political system for the future. Baroness Tyler joins Bland in arguing that it is crucial for charities to retain their independence, and Horwood adds that the Lib Dems should have acted to exempt charities from the parameters of the Lobbying Act. To monitor the impact, he argues for the Lib Dems to commit to an assessment of how the legislation is affecting charities and action to safeguard the principle that charities have a right and duty to act to further their cause and support their beneficiaries. So whilst there is no commitment to repealing there Lobbying Act, there is at least unease about the impact that it is having and awareness that it has damaged the relationship with the sector.
The growing role for charities in providing public services remains a topic for debate, with Horwood calling on charities to ensure that closer ties with commissioners do not lead to a loss of mission and soul. David Smith echoes this sentiment, arguing that too many councils view the sector exclusively as a service provider, but also calling for charities to work with local authorities to ensure that decisions are taken at a local level. One proposal for ensuring more effective working between the sector and government from Smith would see greater use of third sector assemblies in creating and maintaining a dialogue with officials, in addition to localised versions of the compact to agree principles for collaboration locally.
Elsewhere, Kelly-Marie Blundell warns that procurement currently disincentives charities (and SMEs) from bidding for tendered contracts, and praises comments from former Civil Society Minister Nick Hurd, who has argued that greater opportunities must be available for charities to access contracts. This is particularly important given the different expertise that charities can bring to the table for providing services, and Ibrahim Taguri joined others in championing the added benefit that charities can provide. Shifting attitudes towards the personalisation of public services may offer greater opportunities for charities, and Health Minister Norman Lamb argues that there is a role for community organisations in preventing illnesses and bridging the gap between the medical establishment and those in need of support.
One of the challenges that charities will face over the next Parliament and indeed subsequent ones is to engage effectively with young people to ensure that they grow up matching the generosity of previous generations. Empowering young people is a particularly effective way of getting them to engage with a cause, and Baroness Tyler argues that charities should encourage the appointment of more young trustees to diversify boards and develop future leaders of the sector, recommendations proposed by the Growing Giving Parliamentary Inquiry..
Ben Nicholls agrees with the principle of devolving responsibility and power to young people, citing the benefits gained from participating in programmes that give the next generation access to skills used for budgeting, sales, marketing and communications.
A focus on young people should not mean that older people are neglected, with their participation in volunteering involving significant societal and health benefits. As the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation enter retirement, Baroness Jolly calls for new retirees to take on managerial skills and argues that government should explore the benefits of a single national scheme and training to allow older people to volunteer. Baroness Tyler concurs, and she calls for the adoption of a Post Careers Advice Service to give people entering retirement information about the benefits of volunteering, as well as linking them to causes that they may wish to support in their local area.
The Lib Dems do not have either a Minister or Shadow Minister dedicated solely to the charity sector, and the content of their Pre-Manifesto does not contain a great deal targeted specifically at charities or voluntary groups. Whether David Laws will take into account any of the ideas contained within The Yellow Book is yet to be seen, but the ideas outlined above do give an insight into some of the areas that Lib Dem parliamentarians and campaigners would like to see progress in.
Firstly, there is a belief that the charity sector and Lib Dems have a natural relationship and that bonds between the two should strengthen, particularly as a way of challenging power elsewhere. Secondly, there is an acknowledgement that giving can be reformed, and improved. Thirdly, the Lobbying Act remains a source of controversy, and perhaps regret. Fourthly, there is an appetite for a greater role for charities in providing public services, with a desire to see greater competition in the allocation of contracts. Finally, there is a desire for action to strengthen personal connections to charities and secure engagement for future generations.
Over the coming weeks and later in the year at the CAF/ACEVO Social Leaders Debate political parties will have the opportunity to put forward their policies and make the argument as to why the presence of their party in power would benefit the sector. In the meantime, those with an interest in the ideas for the sector developing within the Liberal Democrat party would be well advised to read The Yellow Book to see what the future may have in store.