Thursday, 26 February 2015
It's a long time since I ate a semolina pudding! But Monday I was having lunch with Baroness Angela Smith in the House of Lords. Angela was the last third sector Minister before the coalition took over and appointed Nick Hurd. But she had the rank of Minister of State - the coalition demoted the role I'm afraid. Angela was also my parents' MP when she was in the Commons, so we like to keep in touch. She continues to take a huge interest in the third sector and is one the Commissioners on the Low Commission on better regulation (they have a meeting on Friday).
Last night was a fun and somewhat poignant leaving party for Anne Longfield who is leaving 4Children after 27 years to become the Children's Commissioner. Anne has been a superb CEO and a long time member of ACEVO. The distinguished guest list was a testament to her success. Why, I even bumped into Cherie Blair (literally, as I was reaching for my coat!). Harriet Harman emerged from her bus and many doyens of the children's sector were there to pay tribute.
And whilst reflecting on the Charity Commission I was pleased to see the report of the joint Commons/Lords committee on the draft Protection of Charites Bill. Some sensible points - and a clear recognition that if the Commission are given more powers to issue Statutory warnings and to disqualify people from being trustees, there must be safeguards. And a strong recommendation on the need to support humanitarian work.
Commenting to the press I said the Charity Commission must be prepared to protect, defend and champion the sector and if these powers help them in that crucial aim then we support them. However the evidence does suggest that many of the Commission’s existing powers were sufficient and indeed the Commission have not made the best use of the powers already at their disposal. That is why we welcome the recommendation of safeguards to keep the Commission to task.
Another important point was the role of charities in helping to rehabilitate former offenders by engaging them in community life. This is a key moral purpose in our work and, save for exceptional circumstances, we do not want or need government or the regulator getting in the way. We welcome the report’s call for this role to be protected.
We support the amended list of offences that may disqualify people from becoming charity trustees, but it is important that the Government are not over zealous in the application of the power to disqualify. It would be a grave error for those who have been cautioned rather than convicted of such offences to be excluded from involvement in charitable activity.
Lastly, my evidence to the Committee highlighted the unintended consequences of tough regulatory legislation when it creates difficulties for charities that provide aid in warzones. I’m pleased the Committee agree. It is absolutely right that humanitarian charities are given help and guidance to allow them to operate freely in war zones, and I have called on the Charity Commission to create such guidance without delay.
Monday, 23 February 2015
In these times of somewhat frenetic electioneering, a charity leader needs to be even-handed on the party political front. So I was happy to support the West Oxfordshire Conservative Association coffee morning on Saturday in Charlbury. Bought a very nice Victoria sponge from Sarah Potten (her husband later sold me some of their excellent eggs!), and a jar of Seville marmalade. I even met the Chair of the Association. Sarah has an important role to play in village life as she is one of the Parish representatives for selecting our new Vicar. Interviews are on Friday. My only advice: please don't choose an evangelical!
The Bishops’ letter last week continues to stir things up. My sister Lucy sent me a copy from the Chelmsford Diocesan newsletter. All entirely reasonable and sensible. It’s a sign of the times that critics have piled in to condemn. Most of them not having read the letter. Camilla Cavendish in the Sunday Times was right to point out that these critics need to tread with care. The Bishops have made an important point, that there is a lack of discourse about society amongst the political parties.
This is a point ACEVO will address in our third sector hustings on 24 March. It’s time for civil society to have its say in the run-up to polling day. And it is certainly the role of the Church and of other faith groups to be part of the political debate, as it is for charities. Those who criticise the Bishops’ letter should address the issues they raise, not try shooting the messenger.
But I’m afraid at present the stakes are so high for the Parties that they can’t stand any criticism, and try to suppress or distort what they see as criticism of their particular line. This is not good for sensible debate. It undermines democracy and adds to the cynicism people feel for the political process – which is itself, of course, another point the Bishops were making!
Tuesday, 17 February 2015
We are in a surfeit of party leader speeches and it is still 80 days to go before the election. Will all this debating help or hinder? I was having dinner with Andrew Barnett, the dynamic and charming (no he’s not giving me money!) CEO of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and we were both agreeing it is all a bit tedious. Even though we know it's important.
I was interested in Ed Miliband's speech yesterday on Labour’s ‘Better Plan for Britain’s Prosperity’. The plan builds on the feedback and ideas that many in the business community have given Labour and sets out “how the next Labour Government will chart a path to higher productivity in all parts of the economy as the basis of a renewed and inclusive prosperity. Central to Labour’s plan is an understanding that Britain only succeeds when working people succeed.”
And David Cameron spoke recently on the Tory plan for the economy. Clearly both parties are vying for the business vote and both are setting out their alternative visions for the economy. What is striking is how little they both have to say about society and the role of citizens and communities. Although we know Big Society is not a feature of the current 6 Tory themes, last election there was at least a debate on society. At present it’s completely absent. What role social action? What role the third sector in public service reform? What role in building social cohesion through volunteering or promoting giving?
And yet when you think about it, a prosperous Britain depends on a strong society where there is social cohesion and communities are strengthened through citizens’ social action and volunteering. When society is fragmented there are serious consequences – as we have seen with past riots and social unrest. So business needs to be underpinned by a society that is at ease with itself. The role that our third sector plays in building a strong economy is usually overlooked and yet it is important.
This is why ACEVO and the Charities Aid Foundation are holding a our 2015 Gathering: The Social Leaders’ Debate. We are challenging the main political parties, as well as those who aim to hold a balance of power, to a hustings to debate their party positions with the third sector. It will be fun. And who knows, it may even be illuminating…
The hustings are at Church House in Westminster, in the evening of Tuesday 24 March. If you fancy coming along, do book your place soon!
The hustings are at Church House in Westminster, in the evening of Tuesday 24 March. If you fancy coming along, do book your place soon!
Monday, 16 February 2015
It's part of the Sunday morning ritual in Charlbury. I go to the 8am Holy Communion at the Parish Church, then pop up to our friendly newsagents for the morning papers. On this Sunday my pack contained the Sunday Telegraph, as I had heard it might mention the row over the Charity Commission Chair reappointment. I do like the weekend Telegraphs – their news coverage is always rather good even if its tone is true to type – and the travel /reviews etc. are very good. And their assistant editor Philip Johnston is like me an Old Anchorian!
But I digress. Back to the Charity Commission. The recent report of the Independence Panel had some stringent criticisms of the regulator. As they reported , "our concerns about the leadership of the Charity Commission on the independence of the sector have deepened over the last year."
They charge that "the Commission is giving the impression of being politically driven. Its focus seems to be an agenda determined by Government, despite its statutory independence."
This is strong criticism but a view that is now widely shared across our sector. Of course a regulator cannot become too cosy with the sector it regulates. But a regulator following agendas that have little to do with the priorities of that sector or the public, and a lot to do with government politics, is a very dangerous place to be.
That is why I felt it important to raise the issue of the reappointment of the Chair. In his reply to my letter the Cabinet Secretary makes it very clear this was a Ministerial decision by Francis Maude. It is unclear what exactly the civil service advice on this was. The Cabinet Office have a Director of Ethics who I assume was consulted, given this reappointment did not need to happen till after the election. I wonder what she said?
I also noted that there was an appraisal of Mr Shawcross by the Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary Richard Heaton, as required by the OCPA Code. Strange that this appraisal ignored the views of the sector, indeed as far as I know no one (and certainly not me as the charity leaders network head) was asked to input into that appraisal. And given that the NAO had specifically highlighted the blurring of the executive and non executive roles at the Commission I wonder what account was taken of that? It would be useful in the interests of transparency if this appraisal was published.
However the key point here is much broader. It is how we secure an appointment process that is free from political patronage. This role, and indeed the appointment of commissioners, needs to be established free from government.
This will be one of the issues reviewed by the Lord Low Commission on better regulation. We need a new government to urgently review the appointments process and establish it above politics.
If the key task of a Charity Commission is to maintain trust in charities then we need to see an independent regulator. Independent in people's perceptions as well as in reality.
A real test for the Commission is on the horizon. Will they reinforce and support our role as advocates and champions or will they follow yet another government bug bear and try and water down our right to campaign as established by CC9? They have said they will review and somehow I don't think anyone in our sector thinks they plan on strengthening it.
Thursday, 12 February 2015
Settling down to catch up on Coronation St I was disturbed by someone at the door. It turned out to be a fundraiser from the Battersea Dogs Home. My faithful hound having also appeared at the door I felt I could hardly resist taking up the offer to give them a DD donation.
In fact I'm rather prone to signing up to fundraisers. I've done that for people who popped round from the British Heart Foundation and VSO. And I also can't resist the charms of street fundraisers, or ‘chuggers’ as some term them. So I have an eclectic list of charities I support; but then as the CEO of ACEVO I can hardly turn them down. And it’s a bit like market research for me as I get their literature through the post or the emails. Shelter are particularly assiduous in their search for funds. But then they need to be. Getting support for the homeless sector is difficult. Hedge fund managers and their ilk like something more cuddly, and we have such a long way to go before such people match the level of giving that their counterparts do in the States. Of course there are exceptions, but it is still a dismal fact that poorer people give a higher proportion of their wealth to charity than rich people do.
This is a point that people like Thomas Hughes-Hallett have been labouring for some time. I had lunch with him recently and he was outlining his plans for an Institute of Philanthropy. A much-needed innovation and one to be strongly supported. And he has managed to secure the support of a good philanthropist who is putting a substantial endowment behind this project so it can really motor in a big way, making an impact where it is needed. Thomas is one of the sector greats (I got to know him well from the infamous government ‘listening exercise’ where we laboured together on choice and competition), and it was a rather enjoyable lunch – we discovered we both have a love for the English choral tradition. He supports ‘The Sixteen’ and the choir of Westminster Abbey.
Yesterday I was speaking at the launch of the Independence Panel’s final report on ‘An Independent Mission: The Voluntary Sector in 2015’. You can read it here.
Wednesday, 11 February 2015
So, there I was. On a trading estate in Deptford (not known as the most salubrious part of South London it has to be said) in my high vis jacket. No, not doing a George Osborne on the campaign trail, but visiting FareShare, a charity run by an old colleague, Lindsay Boswell. FareShare receives food surplus (in-date) from the supermarkets that would otherwise go to waste, and redistributes it to charities. It's big business. Big charity business.
Actually I mustn't be too down on Deptford. It has a fine history. Christopher Marlowe is buried up the road in the fine old Church of St Nicholas, Deptford, and just opposite the warehouse is the spot where the first German bomb of the Second World War landed. Some dreadful council developments took the place of much of the bombed areas, so a lot of the fine old houses and spots of this ancient dock area have gone and Samuel Pepys or Peter the Great (former residents) would not recognise it now. At least it means FareShare can rent a decent sized warehouse at a reasonable rent. At least for the time being, I suspect, as London continues to expand.
Tuesday, 10 February 2015
One of the perils of having a weekend away is getting a cold. And as any CEO knows, taking any time off for a cold is a no-no. So this was perhaps not the best background for appearing before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the formidable but brilliant Margaret Hodge.
The PAC were taking evidence on the recent National Audit Office report on Winterbourne View and the care of people with learning disabilities. Basically, the report gave more detail about the failures of the health system to provide proper care for people with learning disabilities.
Its evidence very much backed up my own report last November, “Winterbourne view – time for change”, so I was pleased to be able to hammer home messages from my report.
I was keen to be fair and constructive in my analysis, and where I had criticisms to couch them positively. There is no point in not being constructive at this point. And I wanted to be fair in the sense that, as I told the PAC, I have agreed to recall my steering group to review progress in 6 months and then in a year. Woe betide them if they are not making progress on what I have told them needs to be done.
As I said, I think the change of leadership in NHS England is now driving institutional change.
I was critical was on the failure of NHS England, in their response to my report, to confront the need for closures. They retreated behind euphemisms like ‘reconfiguration’ and ‘reshaping’. This simply isn’t good enough. Large-scale institutions have to close. Institutional care is not the right way to look after people with learning disabilities. My report could not have been clearer. I recommended they bring forward a timetable for the closure of inappropriate institutions, but their response did not address this. Indeed it was thoroughly mealy-mouthed about it.
So obviously I laboured this point hard in my evidence session to the PAC.
I was therefore delighted when, in response to grilling by the MPs on the PAC, the CEO of NHS England Simon Stevens said that he wanted to see closures – and he did use the ‘c word’ – and that they will indeed provide a timetable for closures within 6 months. He made a very telling point drawing from his experience in Tyneside, working in mental health, where they closed the old asylums but left open the same style institutions for people with learning disabilities.
This new announcement is significant progress. It signals to the system that things must change. That the ‘revolving door’, whereby people are discharged into community care and find the beds filled up when they leave, will end. All those lazy commissioners who have block contracts and refuse to properly monitor the people in their care will find they now have to look for community alternatives.
This demonstrates real leadership by Simon Stevens. He should be congratulated for taking a bold step and signalling to the system that the end is nigh for institutional care for people with learning disabilities. Of course it will take time. Community facilities must be developed. But the third sector is there – ready and primed to provide that facility. We now need to be engaged, to scale up our work, so that the institutions can close.
So a really positive outcome to the hearings. I spoke to my old friend Margaret Hodge afterwards and she too was pleased at how positive the hearing had been and a good outcome. She is going to review progress in 18 months so there will be a continuous external review of what the system is doing. This will keep them to the mark.
One of the problems is that there a range of players who need to coordinate actions. For example pooling budgets. I don’t believe a simple call for them will work. I told the PAC the Government should use their powers in the Care Act to mandate pooled budgets. It means the Secretary of State for Health can enforce pooled budgets between local councils and health CCGs. Knowing councils like I do, one-third will willingly pool budgets, one-third will decide it’s not a priority, and one-third will actively resist because it’s cheaper for them to have the health service paying the cost of an institution rather than them supporting people properly in the community. Change will come, but we still need pressure at every level both inside and outside government.