Friday 29 August 2014

Charities speak for their beneficiaries, never for political parties.

A recent story in the Times, and picked up by the Daily Mail, highlights the attempts by the Charity Commission to make us declare spend on political campaigning.

It has been roundly criticised across the sector and I trust the Commission will now drop these proposals. We would be very happy to discuss with the Commission how we , as a sector,  can make our accounting more transparent and work with them on the trend towards impact reporting which demonstrates to the public the impact of their donations.

It's impact that matters , not the sterile reporting of where money is spent. This is where we can tell the story of what we do with the money we receive , whether from government contracts or from the public or corporate donors. We should have a common position with the regulator on how we tell that story – but unfortunately we have got divisive proposals that add more red tape at best and at worst make us suspicious that the real purpose of the Commission is ideological not regulatory.

When prominent members of the Commission are publicly quoted criticising our essential role in campaigning then it is hardly surprising we suspect the intentions of these proposals. Let’s hope that the many submissions that have been made to them will bear fruit and a rethink in how we do this.

Meanwhile let me reproduce the letter I wrote to the Times yesterday which makes our case concisely.

Sir, Stephen Pollard (Aug 26) suggests that charities’ campaigning is partisan, and that they are not transparent. For centuries charities have spoken out against injustice and suffering. In law, charities have a duty to work to alleviate the problems they tackle, and to try to prevent them arising at all. Charity law reflects this by allowing them to speak out on “political” issues in line with their mission.

The Charity Commission recently proposed requiring charities to declare how much they spend on “political campaigning”. A drive toward greater transparency is good for charities and good for society — and most if not all are working to be highly transparent.

However, the attempt to separate “political” campaigning from their other work is at best illogical. At worst, it panders to an infantilised debate that gives the false impression that campaigning is an optional extra to a charity’s work with beneficiaries.

Charity campaigning may be political but this does not make it partisan. Those in power are entitled to object to what is said, but not to charities’ right to say it. Charities speak for their beneficiaries, never for political parties.

The commission’s proposals must be seen in the context of the government’s Lobbying Act and of other attacks on civil society’s right to speak truth to power. It is no surprise that charity leaders speak out in defence of their beneficiaries. We should be glad of it. Society and our democracy would certainly be poorer if charities were muzzled.

Sir Stephen Bubb

Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations

Thursday 28 August 2014

Winterbourne View, progress

A recent article by my old friend David Brindle in the Guardian highlighted the problem we face in moving people with learning disabilities out of hospital into the community and reflects the background of the work we are doing on a commissioning framework in our NHS England steering group.

The problem we need to tackle is that more people with learning disabilities are being placed in hospitals like the one at the centre of the Winterbourne View scandal than are being moved out, despite a brave government commitment to move all people out of inappropriate inpatient facilities. Latest official figures released four weeks ago show that in the three months to the end of June, 358 people were admitted to so-called assessment and treatment units in England. Only 261 were discharged.

A subsequent review by the Government following the scandal concluded that personalised care and support in appropriate community settings is vital. There is a strong consensus around that aim. But so far the transfer programme was supposed to have either moved people out of the units by 1 June or given them a firm date for discharge. So progress is painfully slow. However much work has gone on and since taking this area of work on, NHS England has put in place urgent actions to move towards securing the goals on transfer.  I believe we have an opportunity now to make real progress and secure the community support for people with learning disabilities that they and families want. The current system places too much of the power of decision out of the hands of people with learning disabilities and their families and we need to devise a system that shifts that power from the state to the citizen. That aim must underpin our work in devising a new national framework.

The latest figures, collected by NHS England, show that the number of people given a date for transfer did double over the three-month period to 577. However worryingly, in almost four in 10 of these cases, the local councils concerned did not know that the individuals would be returning to their home communities.

In 50% of all 2,600 cases – which include 147 children – councils had no idea that they would need to help make provision for people returning from Assessment and Treatment units.  Jan Tregelles, the CEO of Mencap is quoted in David's article: "We know people with a learning disability need joined-up local health and social care support. This is clearly not happening. When this is not in place, people are more likely to end up right back in the very units they are being moved from."

NHS England has recognised this and with the steering group I have been asked to chair we are looking at how a national framework for commissioning and social finance could enable the build-up of community support. We are reviewing the work that has already gone on so we can build on that. The aim is "personalised care and support in appropriate community settings " and a shift to a system that emphasises citizen rights in the care system. Our last steering group meeting looked at an initial paper from Bob Ricketts, someone I regard as one of the country's top experts on commissioning which posed questions we need to consider in developing our recommendations on commissioning. We also looked at issues facing a large scale move to community support in the training and development of the workforce. And shortly an expert reference group on social finance will meet to examine how to fund community support. And as we committed, we will be publishing the minutes and papers of the meeting from last week on the NHS England website.

But this work is one part of the much wider ongoing system change that is needed. If this is to work in practice, there needs to be an ongoing engagement and dialogue with the people with learning disabilities, and their families and carers. Without that, this simply will not work.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

‘Something must be done’

The ‘something must be done’ brigade have been in full voice in recent weeks. No-one doubts the threat posed by the upsurge of violence in the Middle East, but the situation is complex and difficult and the history of western intervention is fairly disastrous. So, for example, one of the consequences of the overthrow of Saddam, the tyrant that he was, has been the persecution of Christian minorities that he protected. Similarly with Assad. That does not justify those regimes but it does indicate this is not so simple as the armchair strategist would have us believe. And how noticeable that the ‘something must be done’ brigade, who were so loud in demanding the bombing of Syria, are now arguing we had better side with him against the greater enemy.

The demands for instant action spill over into demands for yet more draconian laws targeted at the Muslim community in the UK. Meanwhile, little is done to build community cohesion or support the work of those in the Muslim communities and their charities who work against extremism. Indeed the shrill demands for tighter laws simply encourage a feeling of alienation in those communities, and make the work of Muslim charities so much more difficult. Why is the government not doing more to support charities and voluntary and community groups in this work? Support for such groups has often in fact been cut or removed.

Too little attention has been paid to the painstaking and patient work that needs to go on building better community relations. It is crucial in tackling extremism. This is why the perception of bias is so damaging to the Charity Commission and we have yet to see what action they will take to counteract this perception. It’s important they do this, just as the Government now need to think through their community building programmes, including ‘Prevent’.  

In the short term too there is something to be done - to support the work of the many UK and international charities doing crucial humanitarian work in the most difficult circumstances, in Syria and Jordan, Gaza and Iraq. This is where we can make a difference and where the generous impulse of so many British citizens can be transformative.

Let’s support the work of Save the Children, Unicef , Médecins Sans Frontières and Oxfam amongst others.

And in particular support the DEC appeal for Gaza. The horrifying consequences of the conflict on ordinary citizens has been horrendous there and in other parts of the region.

I have donated. I urge you to do the same.

You can find the DEC Gaza appeal website here:

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Reds under charity beds....

So, it’s the silly season and you can expect fluffy stories, one of which appeared in the Sunday Telegraph this weekend. I had bought a copy after early morning Communion and it had me chortling on my croissant. Apparently charities are being taken over by former advisors to Gordon Brown. A lurid headline “former brown aides fighting coalition as charity chiefs" failed to provide any evidence to back this up.

It would appear that on the ST logic you are unable to perform a professional job for a charity if you previously worked for a labour politician. So they castigate Justin Forsyth who is doing a tremendous job at Save the Children in incredibly taxing times simply for his former role with our last Prime Minister. No evidence is provided that somehow their work has been subverted by improper political influence.

The reality is that many former advisors to Blair and Brown are in jobs across the public, private and third sectors. That is because they are talented and professional people who have significant experience to bring to the job. Should the fact that Simon Stevens was a Blair advisor and former Labour Lambeth Councillor rule him out of the top job in running our NHS?  Of course not and everyone recognises the huge skill and talent which led the Government to appoint him.

The fact that people take jobs working in Government for Ministers of whatever persuasion should not rule them out for running anything. They should be appointed on merit and ability and they are. Its the outcomes and delivery that matters in a top job not the colour of the tie you wear . The ST failed to provide any evidence that there has been political bias in the work they do; and that's because there isn't any.

It is always disappointing when senior politicians revert to character assassination rather than tackling an argument on its merits or demerits. A classic example of this was Chris Grayling's article to accompany the ST piece. His attack on Frances Crook who leads the Howard League for Penal Reform was particularly regrettable. A distinguished and ardent campaigner; I have known her for years as an ACEVO member. She has been as fierce in attacking Blair and brown as in attacking plans by this government depending on what she feels to be right. According to Mr Grayling she is "one of the most prominent labour supporting pressure group leaders". And the reason for this attack? I reckon it is because The Howard League have criticised the introduction of fixed bedtimes for teenagers. For the world's oldest and most respected penal reform charity not to campaign on such issues would be a dereliction of their charity duty and indeed I know Frances would have been as vehement about this whether it was a coalition or labour policy. It is entirely respectable to criticise such policies. Indeed a healthy democracy respects and encourages such debate. I recommend Frances's excellent Blog on this subject. (

And I rather liked her pithy response to the ST story ". We would be shirking our duty if we did not (campaign). Sometimes it is unpalatable to politicians and this is just tough". Amen to that.

Friday 15 August 2014

Council woes

I first came across the “graph of doom" in Exeter when I was meeting the CEO, Phil Norrey, of Devon County Council. This set out the stark reality of local government finances; that on the current trajectory the only services councils will be able to deliver are basically the statutory services for the old and refuse collection. But when I was with the CEO of Nottinghamshire County Council Mick Burrows recently he was talking about a graph of opportunity. In other words, thinking of how to deliver differently.

Whatever way you cut it local councils have one heck of a task on their hands. They have faced massive reductions in budgets and face similar huge cuts to come. They have by and large faced the challenge well, though we know that many third sector bodies have faced unprecedented cuts and in some cases had to close down.

The bald facts of the finances make it clear that councils need to look afresh at their delivery role and look at how the third sector can be part of the answer to budget cuts. We can do more with less; we always have.

It’s against this background that ACEVO has been developing its work in consortia building across our sector in order to build capacity to bid for council services. Yesterday my local government director John Gillespie and I were in Warwick to see Jim Graham, the CEO of Warwickshire County Council to discuss how we can work with them to support capacity building there. A good meeting; Jim sees a strong role for our sector in meeting gaps they will have over the coming years as they deliver services in tightened times. And good to meet the Leader of the Council too.

Warwick is a stunning place. I was a good boy (taking Simon Gillespie's advice) and walked from the station. And as I was early I got a chance to see the Collegiate Church of St Mary’s, one of the finest of Britain's Parish Churches. It has a particularly famous memorial chapel built by Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick to house his grand tomb.

 His son in law was Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and known as Neville the King Maker for his role in the ascension of Edward III before he switched sides to support Henry VI. A distant relative - 18th cousin I think- so pleased to see his figure on the side of the grand tomb, along with his wife Anne Neville.

And also discovered nearby was the tomb of Robert Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester and supposed lover of Elizabeth I. Dudley died in Charlbury, at Cornbury Park in 1588, just one year after my cottage in Charlbury was built from where I now Blog!

Thursday 14 August 2014

It’s a Dog’s life....

I hate those fascist like signs that are increasingly seen in our parks and public spaces “No Dogs". The sort of signs that call for civil disobedience from us dog lovers. They’re stupid too, when we should be encouraging more dog walking as we all understand better the dangers of obesity. I'd have dog walking on the NHS for diabetics!

Anyway this is just a lead in to say farewell to the wonderful Clarissa Baldwin who is stepping down as CEO of the Dogs Trust after 28 years. An inspirational and much loved leader. I well remember my visit out to see her at their HQ. She is perhaps best known as the author of the slogan “A dog is for life not just for Christmas". And the Dogs Trust is in safe hands as they have appointed Adrian Burder who has been working at the Trust for some time and knows the ropes. Good luck in leading them. I should mention that both my Chair and I are Dogs Trust members! And Clarissa was a longstanding member of ACEVO.

And finally, another huge irritation to us dog lovers are the problems in finding places to stay that aren't sniffy and irritating about dogs. Help is at hand with a blog written by a dog!  Phileasdogg...

See this video snip...

Now I'm off to Warwick to talk to the CEO, Jim Graham, of Warwickshire County Council about how to maximise the use of the third sector in delivering better citizen focused services and ensuring the council hears the voice of their local communities. A not un-agreeable place to spend the day though I doubt I’ll make the castle... The Hound is off in Battersea Park.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Brixton Boys and the death of political discourse

What a treat to listen to John Major on Radio 4 this morning! He was born just down the road from me on Coldharbour Lane and talked about his Brixton days. He, like me , was a Lambeth Councillor – though not quite in the same era!

What I found reassuring was his welcoming attitude to immigration. He was pointing to his own experience of hard working and ambitious immigrants in Brixton. Such a change of dialogue from the nasty, divisive speeches we get these days from many politicians who want to pitch to base instincts and spread scare stories about scroungers and welfare cheats . This discourse is corrosive to social cohesion and builds on people’s prejudices, without so much as a shred of proper evidence, as opposed to pub room chatter and anecdote. Or should we call this ‘policy making by the Daily Mail’?

But political discourse is pretty dismal all round. A classic example today was the announcement of unemployment figures. For the government this is evidence of ‘the long term economic plan’ working , while for the opposition it’s further fuel to the ‘cost of living crisis’ fire. These trite clichés will be trotted out ad nauseam up to the election, and most of us will find it is off-putting to proper democratic debate.  Spin as opposed to proper evidence-based (or even deeply principle-based) policy offers.

Where are the parties’ narratives on society and on the role of civil society? How about social cohesion and community? I have yet to hear an election-focused speech from either Cameron or Miliband on these issues, let alone Clegg.

And whatever happened to the ‘Big Society’ – and what is Labour's alternative?

We need better. It’s no wonder so many people find that the political parties are not the place to find the answers to many of society’s problems and challenges. It’s why so many people now find outlets for their campaigning and advocacy work through charities, and why our memberships have soared whilst the parties have atrophied. Plenty of civil society groups – like the RSPB and National Trust, to name two of the biggest – have memberships in the millions, many times the size of all the political parties put together.

You can however be sure that ACEVO will be battling away on these issues, and challenging the parties to spell out their attitudes to society and community and the role of civil society. Isn't it sad that instead of spending proper time on all this we are having to battle away at the iniquities of the Gagging Act and the vague guidance on it from the Electoral Commission.

I suspect it will be down to charities to spell out the truths about immigration and climate change in the lead-up to the election, and to inform the debate on the environment and international development and build community and radicalism in public service reform. And you can be sure ACEVO won’t allow the Gagging Act to stop us pursuing our mission or on working with our CEOs to ensure we all continue to speak truth to power, whatever politicians might think about that. When the political parties fail to debate key issues then civil society must.

While I blog, it’s worth mentioning there is a good BBC Radio 4 programme on this topic tomorrow evening. Worth listening to – even the bits of me that they will use!