After reviewing The Yellow Book of the Voluntary Sector and exploring the themes included that may shape the Liberal Democrat’s manifesto at the next election last week, this article will focus on The Red Book of the Voluntary Sector, and investigate which of the ideas contained within are likely to be picked up by Shadow Civil Society Minister Lisa Nandy.
The foreword to the collection comes from Labour Leader Ed Miliband, former Minister for the Third Sector. Miliband is critical of the Big Society, and confirms his party will repeal the Lobbying Act if elected in May. He commits a Labour Government to building a positive climate for charities and voluntary groups, including in partnership with the sector to reform the delivery of public services. Finally, Miliband acknowledges the need to engage young people in giving and volunteering, arguing that social action should be included in education, a topic that Nandy has expanded on in recent weeks, and championed by Growing Giving Inquiry Chair David Blunkett, whose commitment to promoting civic engagement, particularly amongst young people, sees him call for the widening of participation beyond Britain’s Civic Core.
Many in the Labour movement see a natural relationship with the voluntary sector. Mark Ferguson, editor of the popular grassroots website LabourList, explains that he sees the Labour Party as rooted in the voluntary sector, with the relationship with the trade union movement today establishing bonds between the party and the largest civil society grouping in terms of membership. Ferguson joins Baroness Hayter in criticising the Big Society, with both advocating the Labour Party undertake the role of enabler of charities, and not merely arms of the state.
The role of charities in the provision of public services is increasingly in the public eye, with a number of contributors to The Red Book expressing their concerns whilst setting out their vision for the future of the relationship between charities and the state. Shadow Communities Secretary Hilary Benn calls for the pooling of money to ensure that it is focused on places and people with the most need. This would include greater use of the Social Value Act to get councils spending money in a way that benefits the local community. Sadiq Khan, writing with Malik Gul, cites the experience of Community Empowerment Networks (CEN) in influencing the allocation of public money, arguing that CENs – if probably administered as in Wandsworth – can create space to provide support and resources to those in need in the local community.
Will Straw focuses on the impact that funding cuts have had in Lancashire, and warns that the application process for funding bids puts smaller organisations off applying. Interestingly, he takes a sceptical tone towards the implementation of Payment by Results contracts, arguing that the best way to reward the effective attainment of outcomes is through the renewal of a contract. For David Lammy, one area for further use of voluntary groups is that of employment, with the London Mayoral candidate arguing that Job Centres are impersonal and failing people. Instead, he proposes a model of hubs, linking people to those best placed to help them, adding that many civil society organisations are much more effective than the state in helping young people find work.
There are, too, lessons that central government can learn from local authorities, it is suggested. Former Lambeth Council Leader Steve Reed MP argues that a Labour government should make services directly accountable to citizens, with the establishment of a new relationship of cooperation between providers and service users. This would involve users of services helping to judge outcomes and take place in commissioning. An interesting suggestion from Ferguson advocates giving MPs the power to provide grants to local voluntary groups to drive positive social change on the ground.
New models of charity finance are discussed too. Former Communities Secretary Hazel Blears looks to the future of social investment, praising social finance leaders who are inspired by good. Blears champions the impact that Social Impact Bonds have made in her constituency, explaining that improved outcomes can be attained whilst saving money, calling for a greater focus on commissioning outcomes. For Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Chi Onwurah, there is scope to expand the role that social enterprises play in building and sustaining communities, aided by her belief that social enterprises retain similar principles to those behind the Labour movement. Onwurah calls for social enterprise to be at the heart of Labour’s vision for a new economy, but warns that some companies are branding themselves as social enterprises improperly, and suggests that a definition could be beneficial to the sector.
Gareth Thomas wants to see the use of Social Innovation Zones to tackle social problems. These zones see partnerships became local authorities, charities and the private sector, with the goal of building capacity amongst local charities so that they can compete for – and win – council contracts. Finally, Susan Elan Jones argues in favour of a progressive philanthropy that recognises giving by all social groups, and praises governments of all colours for focusing people on giving. She acknowledges the need for the further development of Gift Aid, arguing that the next expansion should see text donations allow donors to claim tax relief, a theme that Blunkett concurs with in his efforts to encourage greater involvement from young people.
Lisa Nandy’s foreword draws from her experience working in the voluntary sector, and argues that Labour need to learn both the positive and negative lessons from the Big Society. Nandy argues that many communities feel abandoned, and calls for the Labour Party to get the state and voluntary sector working together as distinct but complementary partners. Since the publication of The Red Book, Nandy has delivered a speech setting out Labour’s priorities for the sector if elected. Priorities include a reaffirmation of the commitment to repeal the Lobbying Act, a study of pension provision across the sector, and increased use of volunteering and social action in schools and at work.
Whilst the influence of both Miliband’s and Nandy’s insights will undoubtedly be reflected in Labour’s manifesto, some of the other concepts explored within The Red Book show wider attitudes within the party and hint at how policies may develop. The relationship between government and charities is a particularly hot topic, with contributors keen to see both central and local government working in tandem with voluntary groups to provide better, personalised services to users. Additionally there is undoubtedly appetite for the implementation of new schemes and ideas, as well as a desire to widen opportunities for engagement in volunteering. Finally, the more nuanced approach taken to rhetoric and implementation of the Big Society is particularly interesting, and indicates that the party is refocusing attention on the future of the sector.
Next month, CAF and ACEVO will be encouraging speakers from political parties to join us at the Social Leaders Debate, where they will be given the opportunity to set out their policies and explain to an audience of charity sector leaders what their priorities as an incoming government would be. For now, The Red Book is a useful starting point and guide to those with an interest in the outlook for the environment for a civil society sector under the leadership of Miliband and Nandy.