But on this occasion it played host to a bunch of charity CEOs who were gathered to listen to the CEO of Boots; Alex Gourlay and Ciaran Devane, CEO of Macmillan Cancer. They were talking about the value of partnerships between the private and third sectors.
Boots had decided they did not want to do the usual charity of the year type promotion but to do something that would add real value to a charity and to their customers. They framed a partnership with Macmillan which involves 10 hours of voluntary training for chemists to give advice to cancer patients about their drugs, side effects and where to go for more advice on their condition. Originally designed for a 100 volunteers they now have trained over 1000 chemists. It has been hugely rewarding for the staff involved and has provided real support to people with a difficult and worrying disease.
As we discussed, this type of scheme has much wider application. Chemists could play a much larger role in giving advice, say on long term conditions and provide pointers to charities who can offer more support and advice.
And my great lunch was with an old friend, Eric Pickles MP, the Secretary of State for local Government. Another ACEVO members' lunch, this time at CCLA in the City. I had hot footed it over from the Winter Conference of our sister body SOLACE, the council CEOs network. I was giving a keynote on commissioning and the use of consortia; a chance to talk about the work ACEVO is doing in councils and our consortia tool kit. So I was in the mood to meet with Eric.
He is an amusing and engaging figure (I knew him when he was Leader of Bradford Council) and is sold on the idea of third sector delivery and the greater use of the sector by local councils. He had in fact just come from recording Desert Island Discs. Listen in on Sunday (after the Archers Omnibus). If I'm not taking the Hound off for Sunday roast I shall be. Otherwise it's iPlayer as I am up to date on technology! He had to dash off for a meeting with the PM, such is the life of a Cabinet Minister.
Our ACEVO lunches are Chatham House so I can't repeat all of Eric's tales but he gave us good fare to go with our excellent luncheon repaste. However I can tell you I very much agreed with his analysis that the Localism Act is potentially revolutionary if we use the rights it gives to assert citizen and community ownership and service delivery. The rights have only been in legislation for 6 months so it is early days but if the sector is smart we should be working on our challenge to Councils. And the way they deliver.
We have to continually challenge councils on cuts. Half of local authorities have made disproportionate cuts to the voluntary sector, according to a new report. Compact Voice, which represents charities on the Compact, used the Freedom of Information Act to question 352 local authorities in England about cuts they had made to voluntary sector funding.
Of the 293 that responded, Compact Voice says, half revealed they had made reductions in grant funding to the voluntary sector that are disproportionate to the amount their own budgets have been reduced.
The Compact Voice report on the findings says that voluntary sector organisations are being given fewer opportunities to deliver council services and that the amount local authorities spend on contracts with charities has fallen.They also found that 56 per cent of local authorities said they had reduced the amount of grant funding for voluntary sector organisations between 2011/12 and 2012/13.
Slightly more than a third, 35.5 per cent, said they had increased grant funding over the same period.
This will be particularly crucial over George Osborne's extended years of austerity. Bad councils will again seek to cut into the voluntary sector. Good councils will seize the opportunity for re-shaping services and using the sector to redesign commissioning. We also have to defend communities and citizens from increasingly bigoted attacks from Government. Benefits aren't a bad thing. Richard Hawkes of Scope was right to point out in The Times that benefits actually help people to love their lives. To demonise people on benefits as scrounges is morally reprehensible. Am I the only one getting fed up with hearing George Osborne talk about the hard working person going to work and noticing the drawn curtains of his neighbour. This is exactly the sort of loose talk that encourages people to scorn those on benefits. It is no surprise that disability charities report increasing hostility to disabled people.
So back to the office to meet with Chris Mould who runs the Trussel Trust. They are most famous for "Food Banks" which are now springing up across the country. Run by faith groups and supporters they are a real sign of the times. Hugely relied on by many people bringing up families and struggling in these times of austerity. We had a good mutual moan about how people on benefits are treated. He has become a real source of knowledge and experience about what it is like to live in poverty in modern day Britain. It's a blight on society (no not chuggers) that we now have to rely on the generosity of strangers to feed the poor. There is even a Food Bank in Witney, in the PM's constituency in one of the richest parts of the country. I saw them in action outside Waitrose only last weekend. A brilliant initiative and Chris is to be commended and congratulated for his work here.