Monday 5 January 2015

Happy New Year!

A new year, and it’s looking exceedingly political already. Will we all be bored to distraction over the next 4 months of hyper-electioneering? I suspect so, though we know it's an important choice that must be made.

We begin the new year 2015 in the certain knowledge of at least one election in the next twelve months. One political adviser was quoted over Christmas saying he could think of at least 10 likely outcomes of May 7th’s poll. It is a critical but uncertain time for charities and social enterprises, and all we know for sure is that demand for our services will increase while funding will continue to be under pressure.

Today's the start of the party election campaigns, and so with 121 days to the polls I thought I'd outline ACEVO's vision for the year.

We think the top priority for politicians of all parties should be ensuring the economic and social recovery extends to all of society. Charities are vital to making this happen, by reducing demand for public services and working with the most vulnerable, and they need careful support. Yet too often the sector is viewed as an afterthought, an optional extra. It's time politicians recognised this.

Britain continues to be among the most generous countries in the world, as the Charities Aid Foundation ‘World Giving Index’ shows. Our 2.3 million civil society workers are a bedrock of British society, as are the 29% of the population who formally volunteer at least once a month. It’s vital that politicians recognise and do their best to protect this part of society in the run up to the election.

The General Election debate remains far from satisfactory for our sector. There is clear consensus among the larger political parties for an additional £50 billion of spending cuts over the next parliament. But there is little honesty as to where cuts will fall. Charities that provide the other, social safety net need urgent clarity so that they can prepare to fill the most urgent gaps when state provision is cut.

Our 2014 ACEVO Social Sector Tracker indicated that 89% of charity leaders expected rising demand for their services in 2015, while only 32% were confident this increased demand could be met. I have seen little in recent months to suggest that this picture has improved.‎

But our sector will not be passive observers of political debate. This month I'll be writing to the leaders of all main political parties to set out our stall. I will send them copies of our ‘Free Society’ manifesto for 2015, and draw attention to three key demands:
- For a 5-point blueprint for a ‘Free Society’ that protects civil society free speech
- For a Charter for Citizen and Community Rights in public services, to boost third sector delivery and ‘put the care back into public services.’
- For a grown-up debate about funding the infrastructure of the third sector, with possbilities to be discussed at a pre-election summit on the third sector. This would debate how to fund the sector as it further relieves the pressure on statutory public services.

2014 saw Britain’s civil society free speech compared unfavourably with the likes of Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia. When charities like food banks and homeless shelters are working harder than ever, it is vital that civil society is free to speak truth to power and point out the causes of the problems they seek to address. Politicians and others in power may find these uncomfortable truths, but they should not be silenced.

Our top-line ask is the urgent repeal of the Government’s Lobbying Act, and the introduction into law of safeguards for charity free speech.

We're also making sure politicians see charity leaders at the forefront of public service reform, to give Britain more responsive, citizen focused services that work with them not to and for them.

Too often citizens are still left disempowered - and this is something our sector can change. My November 2014 report on the Winterbourne View Care Home Scandal was adamant that service reform depends on empowering citizens to demand better services closer to their homes and in accordance with their needs.

ACEVO will call for a Charter for Citizen and Community Rights, that will safeguard rights to choice and voice for public service users in law.

I hope you enjoyed the break. I was in London, Charlbury and Yorkshire! Now it's back to the office with a vengeance. And with a resolution to cut down on excess sugar and wine. Let's see how long that lasts...

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