Friday 31 October 2014

European Networks

In Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, for the biannual conference of the European network " Future for religious Heritage".  It's a network of organisations dedicated to preserving and using the great heritage of religious buildings across Europe. ACEVO member Crispin Truman, who runs the Churches Conservation Trust is a leading member and he asked me to make the keynote address to the conference wearing my double angled hat ( tricorn perhaps?) of Euclid and ACEVO.

We were meeting at the Francke Foundation, established over 300 years ago by a famous theologian August Francke as a home and school for orphans.  At it's peak it was home to some 2600 children and the massive complex and impressive ancient buildings are still standing today.  Halle is the birthplace of Georg Freidrich Handel.  There is an interesting link because Handel knew and liked the work of the foundation and became close friends in London with Thomas Coram giving him much of the money to establish the Foundling Hospital.  An orphanage we now know as Cora; a charity still going strong to this day and partly funded through the generosity of Handel and the manuscripts and copyrights he gave them.  He was clearly inspired by the example of the Halle orphanage, which had become famous across Germany.

The Fraancke Fondation, though suffering at the hands of the Communists of East Germany, is still a major force in civil society; a hub for academe, schools and homes for old people and offices for many civil society organisations.  As it says in its mission, it wants to provide people from all walks of life with a rounded education and the ability to become social actors.

So it was a neat venue for the subject of my address; the role of civil society in communities and nation, life and the importance of a living heritage, where historic buildings are used as centres for community action.  I followed on from the German Minister of Culture. He stayed to listen and I feel sure he was edified by my denunciation of political systems and parties for ignoring the role of civil society. I was stressing the dual role of civil society leaders to both work to deliver much needed services and also to campaign. I didn't talk about knitting- I wasn't sure it would translate.

You can be sure I made reference to the historic link with Handel (not to mention the Hanoverian 300 year anniversary) and so it was incumbent on me to visit the house where he was born. 

I also popped into the Church where he was baptised and later learnt to play the organ.  That self same organ is still there and in use today.  Indeed when I went in, it was playing Handel, obviously as there is an active Handel society in Halle. 

Meanwhile back in Blighty we have had the results of the transforming rehabilitation programme. A mixed message. 

We are pleased to see that the Ministry of Justice recognises the central role of charities and social enterprises can play in delivering services, especially their expertise in prevention.

However, their are still flaw in this commissioning model.  The contracts needed to be more locally based, and the barriers to entry for charities to take prime contracts were too high.  Whilst it is good news that we play a large role in sub-contracting, we wanted to see charities and social enterprises in the driving seat of the primes, which has not happened.

As we saw in the Work Programme, when large private companies sub-contract to charities or social enterprises, this can often overload smaller charitable organisations with risk and cause financial strain. Government must continue to learn from past mistakes and look to innovative ways of ensuring charities can work in partnerships to contribute quality outcomes.  

The third sector must never be subservient to the interest of private companies, rather then the communities we serve.

Friday 24 October 2014

The Result of the Charity Commission’s Consultation on the Annual Return for 2015

This is a significant victory for ACEVO and the wider charity sector in our mission to ensure that charities remain free to campaign. We are pleased to see that our message has been heard and our consistent pressure has paid off. The Charity Commission has listened and we welcome that.

Declaring spending on campaigns has nothing to do with transparency and everything to do with pandering to a meaningless and infantilised debate that suggests charities should ‘put up and shut up.’ Our view is clear: it would be a dereliction of duty for any charity to see injustice or poverty and not speak up about it – and a dereliction of duty for the regulator to encourage it.

We hope this will bring this nonsense to an end, and we’ll continue to work closely with the Commission and to monitor events carefully.

Friday 17 October 2014

A new Chair and Vice-Chair

Some good news for a Friday afternoon. Very good news even. This week I was pleased to confirm and announce that ACEVO's Board have elected our new Chair and Vice-Chair, to replace Lesley-Anne Alexander and Virginia Beardshaw from January.

Paul Farmer, CEO of Mind, will be our next chair. Sharon Allen, CEO of Skills For Care, will be our Vice-Chair. Like their precedessors they are both highly distinguished chief executives, and will bring a wealth of experience and wisdom to our board and to the whole of ACEVO.

You have only to look back at all of the coverage Paul secured for Mind at the recent party conferences, for example, to see that he is a chief executive at the top of his game. He really has put his organisation at the top of the national political agenda. Sharon likewise leads one of the social care sector's foremost organisations, and speaks from deep experience of this vitally important part of our society - which employs no less than 1.5 million people.

So, welcome to Paul and to Sharon! And whilst we'll have a proper celebration in January to say our thanks, thank you Lesley-Anne and Virginia for your sterling leadership and advice over the last six years. We'll be sad to see you leave the board!

Monday 13 October 2014

What are the Charity Commission up to now?

Had anyone noticed – before last week – that the Charity Commission this year produced a new ‎‘Statement of Regulatory Practice’?‎ Certainly it hadn’t been much discussed. It appeared in its 2013-14 Annual Report, published in July, and was mentioned by Paula Sussex in a speech last Tuesday. Stephen Cook’s excellent editorial in Third Sector on Friday was timely in drawing attention to it and the surrounding debate. At ACEVO we’ve been investigating the new statement for a few weeks; it is important and concerning.

The new Statement of Regulatory Practice has added an interesting regulatory area that seems not to have appeared before in this form; the regulation of ‘‎improper politicisation’. No mention is made of this point in previous reports.

The full statement reads:

‘We will be alert in particular to fraud, terrorist activities, the abuse of vulnerable beneficiaries and to improper politicisation.’

The closest equivalent line in the previous Annual Report instead focuses on:

‘Issues of fraud, financial abuse, terrorism and concerns about the safeguarding of vulnerable beneficiaries are among the most serious of abuses and we will continue to concentrate on tackling these problems.’

No word on ‘politicisation’ there.

Of course charities need to avoid being partisan and party political. The Commission has the job, as regulator, to enforce the law on this matter. But how exactly will the Commission – whose role is explicitly non-political and in fact quasi-judicial – properly determine what is ‘politicisation’ let alone when it might be deemed ‘improper’? The Commission’s own guidance document CC9 states specifically that ‘campaigning and political activity can be legitimate and valuable activities for charities to undertake’. Indeed if you invert the phrase this would mean that ‘proper’ politicisation is fine. What does all this mean in practice? And who is to judge?

This might all be discarded as merely a clarification of existing practice as set out in CC9 (in its latest post-2008 version). But given the tone the Commission has set over the past year or so charities might be right to wonder whether the definition of what political work is deemed ‘proper’ might vary according to political whim. Either the Commission is subject to political influence and so it shouldn’t be allowed to make judgments like this, or it is indeed a quasi-judicial body and thus the independence of its regulatory activity should be closely guarded.

Further down in the Statement of Regulatory Practice comes an assurance that ‘we will respect and protect charities’ independence’. How do these two statements add together?

I’m concerned that in the current debate around charities’ duty to speak out and to campaign, the focus on preventing ‘politicisation’ might curb our right to independent voice as long established in law – and as is laid out in CC9. In the recent debate about the Oxfam ‘perfect storm’ advert it would have been good to see the Commission more clearly defending our right of free speech from the outset. I’m sure they will be clear in their views that the advert fell well within their Guidance and will protect our independence from political attack. 

At worst this addition to the regulatory list may signal the Commission is prey to ideological winds, as exemplified by the recent choice of Frank Prochaska to speak at their Annual Public Meeting, comments from its Chairman or the failure of the Commission to argue for charity exemption from the Lobbying Act. If, as Stephen Cook suggests, a wider review of CC9 and charity campaigning guidance will soon be afoot, if not before the election then later in 2015 or 2016, it would be worrying to begin the review with the Commission already having set out a clear, hostile view that says charity campaigning and political activity should be curtailed.

We saw in our Red, Blue and Yellow Books of the Voluntary Sector that the big political parties are all thinking seriously about charities, the regulator and civil society’s relationship with politics. Let’s hope that the run-up to the General Election gives us a serious debate on this issue, and that MPs take their seats next May better informed about charity political activity and ready to carefully defend us against any efforts to curb our campaigning. Our independent speech must be protected!

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Tales from Glasgow

Well it was an enjoyable end to party conference season at a rather quiet Glasgow SECC with the Lib Dems. This conference has less of the manic atmosphere of Labour and the Tories. It leaves more time to speak to other charity leaders, politicians and journalists.

Tuesday morning started very early with our third Social Investment Summit, held in partnership with Big Society Capital and the Social Investment Business. I chaired and we got off to a good start with speeches from Nick O’Donohoe (Big Society Capital), Howard Sinclair (St. Mungo's Broadway), Sandra Schembri (House of St Barnabas), Norman Lamb MP and Jemima Bland (PPC for East Worthing and Shoreham).

Later on we launched the third of our hotly-anticipated essay collections, The Yellow Book of the Voluntary Sector - which has a brilliant foreword by Nick Clegg. You can find a PDF of it hereHaving been shown the excellent diary story based on my opening speech at last week's Blue Book launch, I opened with a less harvest-festival based speech that did express hope that the Lib Dems would go back to their roots and embrace our sector's potential. Here's a few pictures from the evening, with our speakers Baroness Jolly, Ibrahim Taguri PPC, Jemima Bland PPC, Ben Nicholls PPC and Kelly-Marie Blundell PPC.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Championing charities in Birmingham!

So the Tory Conference has drawn to a close. Last night's ACEVO/CAF civil society rally was a triumph. We launched our Blue Book of the Voluntary Sector, part of our series of essay collections looking at the major parties and their future relationship with the voluntary sector. You can read the full book here.

There was a positive debate on how civil society is central to Conservative thinking and a very good humoured and purposeful discussion. Even when the dreaded Lobbying Act was mentioned, our Blue Book authors were keen to stress their support for charities rights to campaign. I gave them a tub-thumping speech on our dual role to provide support and advocacy, linking this improbably with the harvet festival lesson on ‘righteousness’. I suggested that’s what charities do! And once again our new Minister Rob Wilson came along to speak. A good few words on how he wants to work with the sector over the next few months.

Of course, running fringes is only part of what we do at these conferences. Much of the value lies in the conversations and chats that go on around the conference halls and rooms. So I was able to catch up with the Prime Minister (who also happens to be my MP) as well as key Cabinet Ministers like IDS, Nicky Morgan and Francis Maude. I caught up with old friends like David Willetts, Greg Clark and Damian Green and I did a couple of dinners where I spoke about health and public service reform. And I even had an enjoyable chat with the journalist Christopher Hope, the chap on the Telegraph who wrote the charity CEO stories. We had a good discussion about transparency in charities, which we intend to continue over lunch.

Although conference season is a draining 3 weeks it is essential that the third sector flag is seen flying high. One of my core roles as the charity CEO leader is to be here. We argue our sector’s corner, keep ourselves visible, and make the connections and networks we need to promote our cause.

So roll on Sunday; Glasgow and the Lib Dems and the launch of the Yellow Book!

Here are a few photos from last night taken by my policy officer George Bangham.

My opening speech:

New Civil Society Minister Rob Wilson MP speaks:

Dominic Raab MP talks about his essay:

Penny Mordaunt MP discussing her work:

John Glen MP challenging Clement Attlee's vision of charities and public services:

Our packed audience: