Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Gift Aid, Public Health and St Hilda's.

A meeting of the Gift Aid Forum yesterday - in the Chancellor's room no less (as my Head of Policy said, that's a good indication we are getting nothing!).

Let's be honest and say we are disappointed. There are some good things in the proposals for Gift Aid reform which we support. We will help make it happen. But clearly the sector was hoping for more.

The Government has trumpeted the Big Society, the need to increase donations and reduce charities' dependence on State funding. At the same time we face a VAT rise, loss of transitional relief, signs of falling donations and major spending cuts, this is a frankly disappointing and unambitious outcome.

It doesn’t take a Treasury economist to work out that standardisation and more toolkits will do little to compensate the sector for the loss of £100 million in transitional relief and £140 million due to the rise in VAT, plus swingeing spending cuts.

But I do very much welcome the silver lining in Justine Greening’s commitment to leaving ‘no stone unturned’, as she said, in looking at other ways to support the sector through the tax system. We will look forward to engaging with HMT on that, and hope the result will be substantive action of a kind that sadly the Gift Aid Forum has not led to.

Cynics would argue the Forum was devised by HMT to ensure no action but that is too cynical surely!

There are lessons for our sector here too, and those of us involved will need to reflect on what I think we should all accept has been a collective failure to achieve more for the sector at a time of need.

We did not speak with a collective voice, nor could even agree the importance of the call for a continuation of transitional relief. Lessons for the future?

But onto potentially more rewarding news. Public health.

We welcome Government’s recognition of the ‘vital contribution’, (as the White Paper says), the third sector already makes to public health and the commitment to putting the sector at the heart of their plans for public health, including by encouraging Local Authorities to commission services from independent providers.

Much of the success of the Government’s plans will now rest on the relationships between Authorities and the third sector. With some local Councils already cutting back their support for voluntary organisations in order to ‘protect their own’, there is a danger that Lansley’s vision will be undermined by Local Government salami-slicing before the new public health service is even up and running. Councils need to work intelligently with their local third sector to foster the kind of thriving civil society which will enable them to deliver on the Government’s public health agenda.

Although the public health budget is ring-fenced watch out for Councils deciding some of their core services; pot holes for example, are redefined as part of the public health agenda. Why, we don't want old people falling into the holes and breaking things!

But overall, the direction of travel is right. And members will be quick to galvanise around the opportunities; both for advocacy, advice and support and for delivery.

A busy day that was capped by a dinner at St Hilda's College, Oxford. It took forever to get there on our creaky train system and I arrived wet, cold and grumpy. And managed to get there after the main course had been served. But the Claret was awaiting...

I was speaking to a group of Local Authority CEOs and other leading officers on the role of the sector and "Big Society", though we all agreed it was a term that was nearing the end of its shelf life.

I was struck by the willingness to think out of the box on how Councils and the sector can work together better. I think there is an interesting agenda for Councils and national charities. So often the local Council perspective is defined solely by local infrastructure. It needs both local, regional and national perspectives.

The Council agenda is one ACEVO will be pursuing with more dedication over the next decade.

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