Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Farageing for a civil society policy?

What do Nigel Farage and UKIP have in mind for civil society? Does Farage even know himself? Given the huge media attention on UKIP, and their success in the recent elections, this is no longer an academic question.

Some of their candidates, to be sure, have very old-fashioned views on civil society. You have only to delve into the past musings of the UKIP candidate in Newark, Roger Helmer, to discover that. He did me the honour of publishing an entire blog diatribe against an interview I did for the Times a couple of years ago, parading his view that a charity ceases to be, well, a charity, as soon as it receives money for a government contract. He claims that ACEVO’s reason of being is ‘perpetuating the right of charities to continue to suckle on the teat of the Welfare State’ Clearly, in his view, it is not so important what a charity does, but that it stays untouched by government help.

I'm sure that UKIP like the notion of charities doing good works. But our role in campaigning and advocacy, our voice in speaking truth to power, and our duty to champion the disadvantaged and marginalised – these, it seems, will be anathema. I suspect they would prefer charities to be like children; seen but not heard.

It is time that UKIP is put to the test on their view for society. If the party is to keep growing and to be presented as a credible alternative, we must look beyond their most high-profile policies. Immigration and Europe alone do not a national party make.

Friday, 23 May 2014

The future for epilepsy

There are many misunderstandings around and certainly much stigma about epilepsy. This week was national epilepsy week, when the various organisations connected with this condition seek to raise awareness and fund raise for support.

I was pleased to be asked by 
Young Epilepsy to speak at their research launch in the State rooms of the Speaker’s House in the Commons. As the chair of their education committee told me, there is likely to be one person in every primary school with this condition and up to 5 in each secondary school. Young Epilepsy themselves run a world-renowned school and college at Lingfield in Surrey and do significant research there, as well as research with Great Ormond Street Hospital and UCL’s Institute of Child Health. 

This week’s event was launching Young Epilepsy’s 2014-2017 research programme, Creating Brighter Futures. Its two broad aims are to further identify the needs of the 112,000 young people in the UK who live with epilepsy, and then to support new strategies and interventions to make their lives better. These include everything from evidence of the effects of physical exercise on children with epilepsy, to embedding their work in Universities so that young people living with the condition are properly supported when living away from their families for the first time. There is still a long way to go before the public are as well-informed about epilepsy as they are about other conditions such as autism, but this kind of work is what we need to improve this situation.

They have also nearly completed a £10 million fundraising initiative for new educational buildings, which will replace their school site in Lingfield with a modern building which is fit for purpose. If anyone can spare the money to complete the project - do get in touch! They cut the turf only a few weeks ago so the project is well on the way.

It was great to be able to support a charity that really shows the sector at its best. It combines campaigning and advocacy with research and delivery. It is an old charity - founded in 1897 - that has refocused and reformed over its long history, but it retains its core mission to support young people to live active lives. As I said at the launch, we depend on charities like this. They are indispensable in raising awareness and providing support.

And next up is to go down to Lingfield and visit. I promised that I would!

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Sun and fun in the North.

As it clouds over in London I thought you might Ike some photos from a gloriously sunny northern weekend. I was staying with an old friend in Lancashire. The Hound and I joined Michael and his 2 sheep dogs for sailing and walking in and around the Lake District. We sailed up Lake Coniston with me steering in a very voluntary sector way. This involved meandering somewhat but getting there in the end! The end destination was John Ruskin's house, Brantwood, which stands on the banks of the lake.

We also went to see Tatton Park and wandered into Tatton which is George Osborne's constituency. Almost as beautiful as David Cameron's, though obviously I prefer Charlbury ! Sunday was steam train day. There is still a working line from Rawtenstall to Bury but if you get off half way you can walk along the gorge and banks of the River Irwell. I needed a walk after a pie and several pints in the station buffet. The local brewery has a pint they brew just for the Rawtenstall station. The Hound appreciated it too. As she was trying to keep up with 2 very active sheep dogs she returned to London exhausted. Long walks are just what the Doctor ordered!

Monday, 19 May 2014

Freedom of Information, or bureaucratic red tape?

There has recently been debate about extending  the Freedom of Information Act to charities. MPs and others have suggested we should do so. This must be resisted at all costs. Why?

Firstly, we are independent of the State, not a part of it. FoI recognised that people have the right to know what public bodies do in their name and with their money. But charities are neither organs of the state, nor are they largely funded by the State - whatever some critics may claim. Latest figures suggest voluntary organisations get just over £16bn from individuals and £14bn from the state (of which over £11bn is in the form of service contracts, not grants).

Secondly, charities often act in the most sensitive of areas and with the most vulnerable groups in society. There can be no right for intrusive journalists prying into the work of charities working in sexual health or abortion, in mental health and disability for example. It could even be dangerous if people felt there may not be the strictest confidence in our operations. Of course FoI exclusions could be used, but the perception that might be created could be damaging.

Third, it would be difficult to disentangle charities' various funding streams. Would grant funding be "state money" and so subject to FoI? What about part-grant and donation funding on projects? Or where organisations have many projects with varying public bodies. You can imagine the legal wrangles. The masses of time-consuming correspondence. The court cases and Commissioner rulings gradually eroding the shores of our independence.

There is, however, a different approach. It must be accepted by voluntary organisations that, if you have a contract with the public sector, there ought to be transparency in how that money is used. The important question is then how to achieve transparency, and in a better way than a bureaucratic, process-driven FoI. Bureaucracy of the FoI type would be prohibitively expensive for charities with limited resources, and couldn't be a good use of donors' or the state's money.

Commissioners could perhaps stipulate in their contracts the information that ought to be disclosed. This could run alongside commissioning reforms that prohibit gagging clauses. Provided that the burden of bureaucracy doesn't outweigh the benefits from transparency, this is a reform whose time has come.

ACEVO is going to consult members on a Code of Practice on information disclosure in public contracts. We aim to exemplify good practice and openness. But we'll say no to the prying intrusion of the journalism that seeks to denigrate not inform. 

And the bottom line must, as always, be on the outcomes of what we do. We must not only be open, but out and loud about it as well!

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Google and ACEVO, Mk. 2

There was exciting news this morning as we helped launch the second Google Impact Challenge, which ACEVO is working on in partnership with NESTA.

You've got until 6 June to enter - pitching your ideas to a panel of judges which includes Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia, Emma Freud of Comic Relief and Peter Jones CBE of 'Dragons' Den' fame. They will give out a £3.2 million prize fund with the four top awards each being £500,000, for charities and social enterprises with innovative technological approaches to social change.

And even more exciting, my Director of Policy Asheem Singh is off to Google HQ in Victoria next week to film some video resources offering advice to entrants. I'll post them on the blog as soon as we have them. Stay tuned.

You can find out more about the Google Impact Challenge here:

How to invest ethically

Like many in the sector I watched Panorama with baited breath last December, as Comic Relief was scrutinised for the way it invests its reserves. The organisation handled the exposure very well and recently announced that it will shortly introduce a new ethical investment policy. But it was and is clear to us at ACEVO that this problem isn’t going away. 

When a big charity invests its reserves, it has a difficult balance to strike between bringing in a financial return and checking where the money is going. There may be cases like Comic Relief where money goes to arms, tobacco and alcohol which run counter at least to the spirit of that charity’s work. This week Trinity College Cambridge saw its own students protesting in opposition to its shares in arms companies.

Having consulted far and wide over the last six months I was pleased to announce on Monday the launch of our Ethical Investments Commission, chaired by Martin Clarke of the UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association. It will run for around six months then produce guidance aimed at chief executives and trustees, to help them align their charities’ investments with their charitable objectives, and help make them aware of all the ethical options open to them for their finances.

The other Commissioners, so far, include:

  • Sudhir Singh, partner at MHA Macintyre Hudson 
  • Rob Lake, trustee of the Friends Provident Foundation
  • Jill Halford, director of audit practice and charity specialist at PWC 
  • Catherine Howarth, chief executive of the Charities Responsible Investment Network
  • Alice Ryder, a senior investment consultant at Stanhope Jewson

Beside looking at this part of the investment market, the Commission will also look at the relationship between responsible investing and impact investing, and the specific role of chief executives in forming and communicating effective ethical investment policies. It will be consulting far and wide with ACEVO members and through an open consultation which can be written to at

You can find more information on our website ( and I’ll post updates on the Commission’s work on my blog.

Monday, 12 May 2014

The Social Leaders' Gathering, Part 2 - Labour and the third sector

When ACEVO talks to Westminster, we like to speak truth to power and to do so across the political spectrum. Before the 2010 election this meant asking the necessary questions of the Conservatives' Big Society policy as it was unveiled - how would the party devolve power in practice and ensure that communities were in a position to take control of their own services?

Now, with a Labour opposition, we're asking similar questions of them too. My Director of Public Policy, Asheem Singh, noted in the Guardian in February that Ed Miliband's rhetoric of people power, localism and devolution has many parallels with David Cameron's before the election. In the details there are some novelties, not least the renewed focus on public interest as the test for who gets contracts. But my argument remains that Labour must full take note of what the third sector has to offer, if they're to succeed in their plans to devolve power.

Jon Cruddas told our Gathering of Social Leaders last week – see the transcript in the New Statesman – that Labour still aim for “a new kind of self-help democracy. Enabling people to build the services they need in partnership with their providers. With huge opportunities to give power back to people.”

I introduced him with a brief speech which went even further. I argued that these good intentions won't achieve the transformation they intend unless the party acknowledges that proper devolution of power can only work if power is handed to organised communities of interest or of place. And who is it who is there to organise communities and help them achieve power and voice? Very often the best option is the third sector.

Edited highlights of my speech are below:

I’d like to introduce Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham and Rainham and, for the last couple of years, coordinator of the Labour Party’s Policy Review.

In recent years Labour hasn’t always had the easiest relationship with the third sector. My own work with the current government and my determination to allow more third organisations to deliver public services has not surprisingly proved unpopular with many parts of the party.

But this can easily change.

The fact is that, as Andy Burnham for example now acknowledges, our sector’s work is indispensable to the success of a wide range of Labour’s plans for government.

If the Labour Party is to succeed in joining together health and social care, for example, it will be essential for Andy Burnham to work closely with the hundreds of voluntary and community organisations on which the future of our NHS depends, who are best placed to deliver responsive and patient-focused care on the front line.

In that vein, we’re now working closely on policy including the future of social prescribing by GPs, and the ways to increase third sector representation on health and wellbeing boards – both the kinds of policy change that simply streamline the pathways into the work our sector does anyway. They will not only improve patient care and empower service users to take responsibility for their own wellbeing, but also save a future Labour government money.

Lisa Nandy spoke of her vision for our sector a short while ago – and I recognise and praise her ambition to do all she can to push our sector up her party’s programme for government.

So, my message is: now is the chance for the Labour Party to make its Big Offer to the third sector.

How could that be achieved?

Political parties talk a lot about power.

But are there really a lot of people in our country with the desire and capability to take on more power?

The third sector grew up in the realisation that people power requires careful organisation. Many people are more concerned in their every day life with making ends meet and just with getting on. 

But that is perhaps at odds with the endless rhetoric of recent years about pushing power down and away from Whitehall and Westminster.

This rhetoric doesn't set out in detail the way in which power is actually constructed; the fact that civil society groups arise because power needs to be devolved to institutions and not just to individuals.

My challenge to Labour and to Jon this afternoon follows directly on from Ed Miliband’s Hugo Young lecture at the Guardian in early February, which I pleased to go along to.

Ed spoke of the importance of ‘people-powered public services’, and the need to strike a different path, away from ‘old-style top-down central control’ and ‘a market-based individualism’. His target was identified as the ‘unresponsive state’. A devolved state will even allow Labour to do ‘more with less’ – Ed said.

He promised that ‘the next Labour manifesto will commit to a radical reshaping of services so that local services can come together and make the decisions that matter to their own communities’.

But how do we actually make this happen? I am convinced that this rhetoric – and it is in many respects very similar to David Cameron’s rhetoric before 2010 – is only achievable if Labour harnesses the established power of community groups and charities to take on public services and look after the people they represent.

Power can only be devolved if it is passed down to organised structures and institutions.

So what needs to be done? The third sector can provide a number of crucially important functions:
- We allow communities of place or of interest to take up their own issues
- We offer information, advice, reassurance and representation to many of the most vulnerable people in our society.
- We take up other people’s causes – and speak truth to power on behalf of those who have little other voice – take for example the work of the Trussell Trust speaking, out in the past year on behalf of the 913,138 users of food banks for 2013-14.
- We improve the strength and breadth of ‘communities’. For all the romantic rhetoric in the present day of communities of place and of interest, some people, particularly the disabled for example, are vulnerable to falling through the net of the largest networks of mutual support. Our sector is particularly strong when it comes to caring for they are far from the welcoming place that folklore would have you believe.
- And lastly, we mobilise at a national scale. In many areas you need the strength of national third sector organisations if communities are to be mobilised and represented on a scale large enough to have the desired effect.

So, thank you Jon for coming here to ACEVO today. I hope my challenge gives you a good opportunity to put more substance to Ed Miliband’s rhetoric on the third sector.

I look forward to hearing you speak on the importance of charities and the social economy for giving greater power, belonging and ownership to communities in Labour’s One Nation narrative.

If you’re looking for real models of ‘people power’ in action, then remember to look at our sector. We are ready and willing to help.

I look forward to a positive year of collaboration.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Would you wrestle a pig?

The big conclusion from ACEVO’s Gathering of Social Leaders, on Wednesday, was that our sector is still highly trusted by the public. This is good reason to be bold in our public voice in the year before the election. Ben Page of Ipsos MORI showed us how our sector is always trusted by more than 60% of people, compared to politicians whose approval is never over 20%.

The Twitter debaters on the day approved, and it’s clear that despite the ongoing saga of CEO pay in our sector our public standing hasn’t been dented. Ben Page had a nice summary of the dangers of being defensive with the press on issues like this; he paraphrased George Bernard Shaw to say “Arguing with the press is like wrestling a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.” Wise words indeed – they even made it into a diary column.

And the CEO pay story is back again this week. The Belfast Telegraph are writing about CEO pay in the 40 largest Northern Irish charities, many of whose leaders are ACEVO members (or members of our sister organisation CO3). They’re asking for the names and pay levels of their CEOs. As part of our sector’s push for full transparency I thought I’d share their questions with you:

“I am a reporter with the Belfast Telegraph.

I rang today but you were out.

I'm doing a story about charity chief executive's pay and have been asked to survey 40 of Northern Ireland's main charities about what they pay their chief executive/CEO.

Could you tell me who your current chief executive is, what their current salary/salary band is (or was in the most recent financial year).

Where charities don't disclose these details, we will be reporting this.

If you can respond before tomorrow evening that would be great.”

Good of them to give us so long to answer…

On a more serious note, this is the kind of story that diverts from the important issue of whether pay is judged as good value by charity beneficiaries, donors and staff. We of course need to be accountable and transparent about pay. And providing all agree it is good value for money, then our time is better spent looking at the results our sector achieves.

Shaw tells us quite clearly; there’s nothing to be gained by wrestling with pigs!

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.