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8 February 2016

The state and voluntary sector independence – who Rremembers the Commission for the Compact?

David Cutler
Restrictions announced by Theresa May on the lobbying of Parliament by the voluntary sector are a world away from the promise of the Compact.
Strengthening Civil Society

This weekend the Government announced its intention from May to preclude voluntary organisations from using money received from Government grants to use that money to influence the Government or Parliament. It made me think of how swiftly the relationship between the Government and civil society in England has deteriorated.

From 2007 until its abolition in 2011, I had the privilege of serving on the board of the Commission for the Compact. The Compact was created in 1998 (and later revised) in order to promote partnership working between state and the voluntary sector. A central principle of this agreement was that voluntary organisations would be free to advocate for their charitable mission and the people whom they served whether or not they received Government money. This principle lives on in Compact Voice run by NCVO and gives as the first undertaking by the Government to:

‘[r]espect and uphold the independence of Civil Society Organisations to deliver their mission including the right to campaign, regardless of any relationship, financial or otherwise, which may exist.’

I am sure that the Government will pronounce that this is still the case and it is simply making clear a charity cannot use public money for this. The wrong-headedness of this is breathtaking but here are simply a few of the problems regarding this position:

  • It ignores that running services gives evidence and information which can be fed back to Government to improve services or policy. Whether you call this campaigning or advocacy, a charity would actually be neglecting their charitable objective not to do this.
  • It will be a mine-field trying to administer this division of purpose and funding for both charities and the Government.
  • It will be the most egregious example yet of the ‘chilling-effect’ of policy in recent years which in aggregate implies that charities should ‘stick to the knitting’ and provide personal services not advocate for social change. A viewpoint that Victorians would have found absurd.

The Baring Foundation has a very longstanding commitment to the independence of the voluntary sector and has been explicitly funding this issue since 2006 under Labour, coalition and now Conservative governments. Clearly the need for our stance is not diminishing. This is also part of a global phenomenon of shrinking civil space where around 100 governments in the last couple of years have brought in legislation to restrict the freedoms of civil society. This has been actively challenged by our Government through the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development – perhaps they should have a diplomatic word with the Cabinet Office.

The Baring Foundation is continuing to use its resources to advocate for the independence of the voluntary sector. Shortly we will be announcing new grants to explore the use of the law and human rights to this end and for positive social change. Further audits on the independence of the voluntary sector will be published by Civil Exchange supported by us and our partner the Lankelly Chase Foundation.

I dread to think what further steps the years ahead hold down this dark path. It all seems a very long way away from the promise of the Compact.

David Cutler

Views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of the Baring Foundation