Wednesday 28 August 2013


The Deputy leader of the Commons, Tom Brake MP said recently,

“I make no apology for a bill that seeks to prevent big, opaque and unaccountable money wielding undue influence over our political system.”

And he is right not to do so. If the Bill was simply about lobbying by secretive big corporations we would all be behind it.  But that description hardly applies to the country's charities. It is clear that the Bill as drafted does inhibit charity's core work in speaking for their beneficiaries. When even the Electoral Commission says its a problem for charities then there is a problem to be sorted and it is no good blustering your way out of the problem as the Cabinet Office are doing. Saying the earth is flat, however loudly doesn't alter the fact it is round so a little more common sense from CO would be most welcome.

The Electoral Commission joins a long list of organisations who have voiced concerns about the Transparency of Lobbying Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill in the past week. They warn it could hugely impact the future of campaigning.  

Either the Cabinet Office intends the Bill to cover charities or they don't. And if they continue to be obdurate we need to move our objections to parts of the legislature where our voice will be heard.

I'm optimistic we can get this Bill changed. But sooner rather than later would be good.

Friday 23 August 2013

The Lobbying Bill; the threat.

Over the centuries the United Kingdom has been proud to host the greatest charitable tradition in the world. Whether delivering public services or campaigning for beneficiaries’ civil society makes for a stronger democracy.

What is of the most importance for our democratic institutions is that we work and speak for the most vulnerable in our society. Sometimes this voice is welcomed, at other times it's uncomfortable for governments and we are criticised. But speaking truth to power is etched across the hearts of charity CEOs.

This is an honourable history. Campaigning against slavery in the 18th century or against cruelty to animals or children in the 19th or against smoking and world poverty in the 20th or fuel poverty and homelessness in the 21st our role in highlighting wrongs and seeking change is unquestionable. Just think of the brilliant campaigns in the 60s on homelessness that led to changes in the law to outlaw Rachmanism. Or on racial justice. Or the work of the development charities on making poverty history.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, which is debated in the Commons next week, could pose a real threat to our charities’ freedom to operate.

What I hear from members is that it this has united all parts of civil society in condemning the proposed limits on charity campaigning. Charities will now be regulated not only if they intend to influence elections in favour of one party – as charity law already forbids – but if the Electoral Commission decides their engagement with policies has an (unintended) effect on people’s decision to vote. That's sinister.

The Cabinet Office stated, on 19 August, that the Bill does not intend to obstruct charities in the pursuit of their objectives.
But lawyers tell us differently. And frankly I suspect some of those behind this Bill do realise the effects and intend them. I'm told it may even affect Blogs and heaven forfend they silence mine?

Our ability to influence policy making by political parties makes for better policy and better laws. And it’s crucial to charities’ pursuit of their charitable objectives. Articulating the needs of disabled people, or the homeless or demanding changes to energy or transport policy is helpful to the political parties.

Before the last election ACEVO held a very successful "Tory Summit", where we had a wide range of the opposition front bench to talk to members about policy and their plans for Government. We held similar sessions for the other 2 parties. It would be madness if we were not able to do this again, or if the Parties then felt they had to approve the "cost" of these (as would be required for expensive projects), which would use up most of our spending limits in one go.

This could dull or even silence the voices of millions of the UK’s most vulnerable people. And at election time that is precisely when those voices should be raised. And listened to.

All political parties gain from a strong and well articulated voice. This Bill is a classic case of a sledge hammer to crack a nut. Of course we all want to limit private firms’ lobbying, when it is for their profit not society’s. But it’s drafted in a way that will cause damage to charities. Let’s get it changed. ACEVO will be working with members to help do just that.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Hurd and Grit

I'm not sure I quite understand why Nick Hurd's comments on lack of grit among younger people has been controversial.

Looking at what he said, he was making an obvious and indeed important point about the need for younger people to have so called “soft skills" as well as formal qualifications.

He said,

 “…but  just as important to us are so-called soft skills, character skills, the ability to get on with different people, to articulate yourself clearly, confidence, grit, self-control..."

This is right and indeed many would argue schools are not as good at developing those soft skills as they are at teaching for formal qualifications. That is exactly the sort of “offer” you get from involvement in the third sector through volunteering. Many young people do get involved in volunteering, or involved in the many projects and out of school activities that charities organise. And often it’s that show of involvement or commitment that marks out young people when they do look for work.

So he is right. Where however the Government need to do more is in tackling the scourge of youth unemployment. The ACEVO commission on this, headed by David Miliband showed the way. It highlighted the fact that this has been a persistent problem under all governments and more determined, targeted action is needed. It’s surprising that youth unemployment has not become more of a national issue. But that may change. It certainly ought to.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

The international role of the Charity Commission.

There is no country in the world with a greater charitable tradition than the UK. It’s something we should be very proud of. And something we should be exporting!

A recent Daily Mail "exposé" has highlighted the international advisory role of the Charity Commission, and declaimed about the outrage of the expense of such activity.

The 1601 Statute of Elizabeth forms the basis of charity law across many parts of the world: Canada, Australia, RSA , NZ and many parts of Africa. It was the only piece of English legislation that was not repealed by Congress after the American Revolution.

At the recent impact Investing Conference I was chatting to a number of delegates from Hong Kong. They are currently looking at their own charity system, which is still based on the English model. Indeed some years back I was asked out to China, with colleagues from the Charity Commission, to advise the Chinese Government on charity law as they wanted to follow the English model for their burgeoning NGO sector.

The issue here ought not to be why Commission staff are going abroad to advice on charity law – this is valuable – but whether we should expand it.

I could see little evidence in the DM article for concern. If staff have followed the proper guidance that civil servants have for such trips then, while moderation would be preferred, this is simply not a scandal. Of course any newspaper can trawl hotel websites and find exotic descriptions of facilities, as did the Mail. And the story was not complete without statutory quotes from an MP ("shocking, outrageous, rank hypocrisy").

The sad thing about this story is if it puts off the Commission from undertaking this valuable work.

We have failed to realise the strength of our tradition and the scope for "selling" advice on charity and social enterprise overseas. Indeed this is not just about exporting intelligence. It’s also about how we support emerging democracies. A strong civil society underpins a strong democracy. And the reverse is true; Russia and the Middle East are areas where civil society has been weak to almost non-existent. So the UK could provide valuable assistance to the development of NGOs. One of the examples of "waste" given by the Mail was Egypt!  How appropriate it was that the CC were there advising on NGO development. Not a cause for censure but applause.

It should however be a lesson to the Chair of the CC to be more careful with his comments in the future, for fear that they come back to bite him and his staff.

Thursday 15 August 2013

The rehabilitation revolution?

When the Conservatives were in opposition ACEVO had many discussions about their evolving policy platforms. I remember a particularly fruitful meeting with Oliver Letwin MP, now the policy brains in the Cabinet Office. Oliver is a real Gent - with a passion for change and no less so than in the "revolving doors" of our prisons. Reform of rehabilitation services was a key plank of their manifesto and they are moving to implement it with radical proposals we are currently discussing with the MoJ. 

This is important for us and for the Government. The fact that the majority of released prisoners are back inside in a year is a huge drain on public resources and on the social fabric. 

The role of charities in prisons and in working with ex offenders is centuries old. The Quakers have an honourable tradition of working in prisons and from the early 19th century the Government gave grants to charities to aid discharged prisoners.  The "redemption of prisoners" was one of the charitable uses laid down in the 1601 Statute of Elizabeth. The 1854 youthful Offenders Act funded schools for young offenders which were run by charities. 

So there is a long tradition of the State and the third sector working together on rehabilitation. 

But Government must get this right. It is only by commissioning charities that you reach the most difficult of cases. We know that many of those in prison have mental health or addiction problems. They come out with few prospects of a job, often with relationship problems back home; that is if they have one. Charities have a proven track record; often hugely impressive, of getting people back on track. They don't cream off easy-to-help cases, and have long experience in their work. Great ACEVO members work in charities like Turning Point or Nacro, St Giles or CRI to name but a few. 

We cannot afford to see a new system that just ensures the big contracts go to the private sector, and charities are either frozen out or given a subsidiary role. 

So the discussions taking place at the moment need to ensure the commissioning framework will encourage charities to come forward. I want to see charities taking the lead role, not organisations like G4S. We need the PBR system to aid more new entrants, not freeze them out. We need access to social finance and cash flow support. And contract size must enable the sector to step up, not be forced out. 

I'm confident MoJ are listening. But more work must be done to ensure the tender framework is right. And we will judge outcomes by how many charities are commissioned.