Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Social Leaders Gathering, Part 1.

So, one year to go to the General Election. And what do our political parties have to offer us in the third sector? It’s the theme of our ACEVO Gathering of Social Leaders today, as we hear from our sector leaders and the leaders of our competing parties on their "offer " to us. 

We have just heard an insightful and amusing account of the prospects ahead from that star Ben Page of Ipsos MORI. Setting the scene and crystal ball gazing. What the polls today tell us is that no one can be certain of the outcome - who wil win or whether there will be a further coalition of some sort.

That is an opportunity for our sector to stake its claim. Its claim to a share in power on behalf of citizens and communities ill-served by the State.

I had the task of introducing our Civil Society Minister Nick Hurd MP; looking back at the coalition and what "Big Offer " they have for the future.

Here is what I said:

So, we have exactly one year to go. Grant Shapps’ election clock at CCHQ has finally got to the 365-day countdown. Ed Miliband today gives Labour HQ the one-year pep talk. The short answer, for anyone who cares to speculate, is that we have no idea who will be in government in a year’s time.
That means the third sector needs to keep working closely with all major political parties. None has a strong narrative yet for the third sector’s role in government, so over the next year ACEVO and the rest of our sector have a big task ahead.

I want to draw special attention today to the question of trust in British public life.

In general, we are losing trust in our public institutions. The same goes for traditional figures of authority – we are no longer a deferential society.

Associational life itself – be it churches, youth groups, football matches etc. – has declined precipitously. Political party loyalty has changed so that while in the 1950s 97% of electors voted Labour or Tory, in 2010 the two main parties only received 65% of the votes cast.

The British Social Attitudes survey shows that over the last thirty years trust in institutions like the police, press and banks has fallen too. The press and banks are particularly notable; trust in the press has halved to 27% of people and for banks it’s fallen from 90% to 19%.

And I’m not sure that more than around 20% of the public have ever trusted politicians on the whole. 
But despite all that, the third sector is still highly trusted – by the general public.

In the wake of last summer’s Chief Executive pay furore, a YouGov survey showed that 49% of the public still trust charities to lobby government for the benefit of society – compared to under 30% for trade unions and under 20% for private companies.

Likewise, an nfpSynergy survey earlier this year, looking at people’s trust in charities to campaign politically, showed that 58% supported our sector’s right to be able to campaign to change laws and government policies relevant to our work. The public seem not always to have a clear awareness of how our organisations work in practice, but they trust that we are doing the right thing on behalf of our beneficiaries.

This is in marked contrast to our political class. Now, no-one ever trusts politicians very much, rightly or wrongly. It’s unfair to comment on that. But what worries me more is that politicians are out of kilter with the public in their view of charity. This same nfpSynergy survey found that a significant number of MPs were unhappy with charities doing ‘political’ activity: 78% of Tories, 23% of Labour and 38% of Lib Dems.

I would argue that it’s this disconnect between MPs’ and the public’s views of charities that has recently produced unpopular legislation like the Lobbying Bill.

So now to the year ahead. I mention trust because, as a trusted sector, charities are essential to the success of the programmes of all potential governments after 2015. With one year to go to the election, our sector’s enormous reservoir of trust we have built up from the public gives us a duty and an ability to speak out and raise the interests of our beneficiaries in an otherwise narrow and quite nasty election debate – focused on immigration, welfare and the economy.

Looking ahead to today’s talks, I would like to thank Nick for his excellent work as Minister for Civil Society for the last 4 years – the longest serving holder of this post, in fact. We like what he has done. He has overseen some effective support for social finance and for third sector organisations providing public services. He has been an understanding colleague to our sector.

But I’d like also to set him a challenge. Our sector is trusted. We are central to the wellbeing of many of our society’s most vulnerable people – giving local communities and communities of need valuable services and a voice in the public sphere.

Yet the Government has provided relatively little support for capacity-building of third sector organisations. Recently Nick announced the £40 million Local Sustainability Fund, to help support medium-sized community organisations struggling to keep afloat in the wake of local authority cuts. The Cabinet Office are currently consulting on it, but the fund will only kick in in 2015.

In the meantime many organisations will struggle or collapse due to falling funding from all sources.
And they will be restrained in their ability to speak out for beneficiaries by gagging clauses in public service contracts, and the terms of the Lobbying Act which comes into force on 19 September.

My challenge, then, is to Nick and to the Government, to ask what lessons they have learnt and what they would do differently if they remain in power after 2015.

I want to leave you with three messages for now:

1. Take our sector’s work seriously – and integrate our work in planning across government like the national infrastructure plan (as ACEVO called for in our representation to the 2014 Budget).

2. Take note of our potential to make a reality of political attempts to devolve power away from Westminster and Whitehall (I’ll talk more of that in my speech before Jon Cruddas this afternoon).

3. Give our sector a ‘Big Offer’. We were central to the Big Society in 2010. I did pronounce it to be dead last year but I hope to be surprised by the public debate in the coming year. There is much to do, not least supporting sector infrastructure that has been decimated by years of cuts.

So without further ado: Thank you for coming Nick, and welcome. I look forward to a constructive year of dialogue in the run-up to the election.

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