A Shared Society? The independence of the voluntary sector in 2017

A Shared Society? ImageA Shared Society? The independence of the voluntary sector in 2017, is the sixth in a series of annual assessments of the sector’s independence, published on 5 April 2017.  To read the Executive Summary, click here.  The full report is available here.  A copy of the press release is on our News page.

The report concludes that this could be a turning point in the Government’s relationship with the voluntary sector and highlights the potential for a new, shared agenda, post- Brexit, 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’. Guest contributors to the report also welcome the Shared Society and give pointers about how to make that happen.  But a major change is needed in the relationship of the state to the voluntary sector, the report concludes, and the sector also needs to ask itself some tough questions.

A Shared Society? emphasizes the need to learn lessons from the Big Society, with a move away from a top down directive style of government and a focus on corporate interests and market-based commissioning. This fails to incentivize the collaboration that is critical to tackling the problems the Prime Minister has identified and is also weakening some parts of the sector.

Early signs from the new administration have not been promising, the report records. For example, the PM’s abandonment last year of key childhood obesity recommendations, despite the fact that health inequalities were one of  her ‘burning injustices’ to be tackled by the Shared Society.  After ClientEarth won a second judicial review forcing the Government again to revisit its plans on clean air, the Government reversed cost controls on NGOs taking court cases on the environment and health, putting future interventions like that at risk.

The report finds that threats to the independence of the sector continued over the last 12 months and are – in some cases – growing, despite some welcome developments. The report cites on-going erosion of voluntary sector independence through, for example, the so-called Lobbying Act (which remains un-amended despite the Hodgson recommendations); ‘gagging clauses’ in contracts; and poor commissioning. Over the last 12 months, its concerns include:

  • new grant standards that, despite welcome 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;
  • new regulations inhibiting future legal challenges to government environment and health decisions;
  • changes to grants in the new grant standards that make them more restrictive and similar to contracts.

One of the most worrying signs over the last 12 months has been the chilling effect on the voice of the voluntary sector, not least during the EU referendum. The report calls on the sector to find a more confident voice going forward, reconnecting with its roots in communities and asserting its independent purpose.

There are steps identified in the report that the sector itself can and must take, including greater collaboration.  But the environment set by government is also undermining the sector’s ability to work on behalf of vulnerable groups and will make the Government’s commitments to tackle society’s ‘burning injustices’ undeliverable, unless changed.   The report calls on the Prime Minister to:

  • Make a clear statement about the legitimate role of campaigning to democracy and the importance of the voice of the voluntary sector in helping to shape policies and services, regardless of financial relationship with Government and recognising that the sector’s expertise often comes directly from delivering public services.
  • Provide a genuine seat at the table of policy-making and service design for the social sector, nationally and locally.
  • Provide 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, where targeted help and a voice is especially important to any Shared Society.
  • Ensure proper, affordable access to the courts for NGOs, reversing recent changes;
  • Sign up to an effective, externally and independently policed and properly funded Compact.

The report is published with generous support by the Baring and Lankelly Chase Foundations.