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5 April 2017

PM’s Shared Society vision undeliverable without major shift in relationship with the voluntary sector, report finds

Post-Brexit opportunity ‘doomed’ unless past lessons learnt, says think tank.

Post-Brexit opportunity ‘doomed’ unless past lessons learnt, says think tank

The Government’s post-Brexit vision for a Britain that ‘works for everyone’ is doomed unless it recognises that disenfranchised communities need a strong, independent voluntary sector that speaks up on their behalf, has a seat at the policy table, and a license to challenge the government freely, regardless of any financial relationship, the think tank Civil Exchange warns today.

Year-on-year erosion of voluntary sector independence is undermining the sector’s ability to work on behalf of vulnerable groups and – short of a major policy shift – will make Theresa May’s commitments to tackle society’s ‘burning injustices’ undeliverable, a Civil Exchange report claims.

The report, ‘A Shared Society?’ says 2017 could be a turning point in the Government’s own relationship with the voluntary sector. It highlights the potential for a new, shared agenda, with Theresa May promising to create a Britain that ‘works for everyone’ and sector leaders identifying Brexit as an opportunity to speak up more confidently on behalf of people who are currently ‘left behind’.

Civil Exchange Director, Caroline Slocock, said: “The Brexit watershed could herald a significant shift, a chance for the voluntary sector and government to work together to give more power to those in society who currently have little influence over – or trust – in government as it runs now – but only if government learns critical lessons from the failed Big Society initiative.

“The evidence so far is not promising and, as our latest report clearly shows, the independence of the voluntary sector, which must lie at the heart of a truly Shared Society, continues to be under serious and growing threat, despite some positive developments over the last 12 months”.

‘Shared Society?’ says the PM’s abandonment of key childhood obesity recommendations and interference in local fracking decisions last year highlighted early cracks in her personal commitment to ‘think not of the powerful but of you’ and prompt fears that her Shared Society vision will experience the same fate as her predecessor’s Big Society ambitions – with corporate interests, top-down decision-making and market based reform of public services still prevailing.

The report charts a view that has grown over many years within government that charities should ‘be seen but not heard’ and increasing threats to opportunities to express civil dissent.

The report cites on-going erosion of voluntary sector independence through, for example, the so-called Lobbying Act; ‘gagging clauses’ in contracts and poor commissioning – and , over the last 12 months:

  • new grant standards that, despite concessions, still seek to prevent government paying for what it calls ‘political lobbying’ and ‘undue influence’;
  • similar campaigning restrictions in the latest round of the Tampon Tax Fund;
  • Charity Commission guidance during the EU referendum that discouraged any voluntary sector involvement.

In addition, the report highlights new regulations inhibiting future legal challenges to government environment and health decisions – for example, on lack of action on clean air, where the government recently lost a key case – and changes to grants that make them more restrictive.

Ms Slocock said: “Britain must hear and respond to new voices if government is to be reshaped to work for everyone, post-Brexit. The voluntary sector can – and must – find a more confident voice on behalf of those who currently lack influence and power. The Government must clarify the profound muddiness that now exists about what constitutes legitimate charity campaigning and ensure this role is encouraged, not stifled”.

The report issues a five point challenge, urging Theresa May to preserve her Shared Society ambitions by:

  • Making a clear statement about the legitimate role of campaigning and the importance of the voice of the voluntary sector in helping to shape policies and services, regardless of financial relationship;
  • Providing a genuine seat at the table of policy-making and service design for the social sector, nationally and locally;
  • Providing effective funding that allows the sector the operational freedom to deliver services that work and capacity to engage in policy-making, particularly for those organisations working with disadvantaged groups.
  • Ensuring proper, affordable access to the courts for NGOs, reversing recent changes;
  • Signing up to an effective, externally and independently policed and properly funded Compact.

Download a ‘A Shared Society?’ here.

Note to editors

  1. Civil Exchange is a think tank set up to provide:
    • A catalyst to help civil society and government work together in new ways.
    • A  resource for research, policy development, capacity building, awareness-raising and exchange about civil society and government.
    • A network of people and organisations who want to share ideas and inspiration.
      Civil Exchange aims to help government and the voluntary sector work better together.
  2. Shared Society? is the sixth in a series of annual health checks started by the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector and continued by the think tank, Civil Exchange. The report is supported by the Baring and Lankelly Chase Foundations.
  3. The report features contributions from voluntary sector leaders – Jacky Bourke-White from Age UK Lewisham and Southwark, Tom Burke from 3GE, Ivan Cooper from the Wheel, Kathy Evans from Children England, Anne Fox from Clinks, Anna Heslop from ClientEarth, Jane Slowey CBE, formely of the Foyer Federation, Paul Streets OBE from the Lloyds Bank Foundation, Sue Tibballs OBE from the Sheila McKechnie Foundation and Sally Young from Newcastle CVS – and highlights opportunities to create a stronger shared vision for the future role and independence of the sector itself.

For copies of the report and media enquiries contact Jon Flinn on 0151 709 0505.