Wednesday 5 December 2012

Mr Shawcross and independence

Charities should ensure they do not become the "junior partner in the welfare state", according to the new chair of the Charity Commission in his first speech at our recent ACEVO conference. "My personal view is that some charities have become dependent on the state. And I think that most members of the public, when asked, would say a charity is an organisation funded from private donations, not public funds."

Charities must indeed remain independent. Of course it is right for the Chair of the Charity Commission to stand up for an independent sector and our ability to speak truth to power. I recognise that there are those in the sector who have similar worries. He is right to warn that in our work our main priority remains our beneficiaries and our mission. However delivering public services for beneficiaries on contract does not make charities dependent, nor need it mean mission drift.

Mr Shawcross referenced the 1601 Statue of Elizabeth to back up his argument. But that statute defines charities in terms of their service delivery. An Elizabethan charity was not simply dependent on the State; they were part of it. Charity trustees were generally indistinguishable from state officials becuase they were the same people. Many charities at that time were joint ventures with the local council. There was much cross funding between State and charity with no distinction drawn. So charity law is founded on dependence not independence. Fortunately we have progressed.

I am unclear why Mr Shawcross would think that organisations whose mission is to tackle homelessness, support young people and children or the old ,for example, should not be doing that funded by state contracts, even when the majority of their funding is from the State. For example Barnados, Action for Children, Turning Point, the Shaw Trust and Catch 22, are well known charities doing great things; absolutely mission driven by their beneficiaries but with most of their funding from contracts with the "state". Do they appear subservient to the state? I have not noticed a dulling of the voices of the likes of Clare Tickell or Victor Adebowale. Anne Marie Carrie has been admirably outspoken on children's issues. The disability charities have been loud and clear about the wickedness of Government plans on disability benefit despite their services being funded through contracts. Leslie Morphy of Crisis last night denounced the disgraceful plans to take benefits from under 25's on BBC News. The notion these organisations are dependent little satrapies is ludicrous.

Worryingly, these comments appear to suggest that welfare services should either be provided by the State itself or that charities should rely on private donations to do their work. And even more worryingly, in recent pronouncements, the CC Chair has said he rejects face to face fundraising, despite the evidence this raises millions for charities. So we should take less money from the state, and less from donors on the street, at a time when CAF and NCVO have shown giving is down, and when demand for our services is rocketing (see the rise in homelessness in London, up 43%). How exactly does Mr Shawcross want us to deal with these realities?

It is entirely right and proper that the State provides, through general taxation, for the sick and old to be supported. The British welfare state is a glory not a problem. But in delivering that welfare state the state does not also have to deliver those services itself. It is increasingly clear that charities can do this better and entirely in line with charitable mission. To do this in partnership with democratically elected councils and Government is often the best way to ensure good outcomes for beneficiaries.

It is also the case that the "state" is not a single entity and many of those charities I mention have contracts across councils, health authorities, DWP or MoJ and other agencies. This diversity of contracts is a strength, even though in total the majority of funding comes from the "State". And I somehow doubt an abused child is worried about whether the help they get is funded by the State or Mr Branson.

Those who see 'dependence on the state' as a major problem should consider this point: is it 'dependence' that most concerns you, or 'the state'? If it is dependence per se then noticeable by their absence are loud public pronouncements about dependence by charities on other single sources of income, such as an individual philanthropist, foundation, company, or local Lions Club. If it is the state, then your strength of feeling is ideological and is best ventilated with a taxi driver and not inflicted upon hard working charity CEOs who are too busy holding together the fraying edges of our society to be distracted by utopian notions of spotless independence or the scaling back of the state.

Beveridge wrote that, "cooperation between public and voluntary agencies is one of the special features of British public life". Beveridge is right. We are proud partners in the welfare state, and should remain so.

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