Wednesday 22 April 2015

Noisy leaders and the election

This election campaign may be boring at times, and too policy-light, but its risky to ignore its importance for our country’s future.

I read two excellent blogs this week on the challenge of getting the third sector heard.

Rosamund McCarthy of BWB, writing for Civil Society, made a comprehensive argument for why third sector organisations cannot be ignored in the pre-election debate, for the sake of good, informed politics and for the sake of improving political representation.

And then Andrew Purkis, former CEO, Charity Commissioner and ACEVO member, continued his excellent new blog with some reflections on political activity and the third sector.

Rosamund wrote:

The voice of the voluntary sector has been distinctly muted in this election campaign. The parties get their message across, dutifully amplified by the media, while business figures are regularly asked for their opinions. But charities are largely silent and excluded, all the while patiently awaiting a poll result that will hugely affect their beneficiaries.

Austerity will continue to have a devastating effect on the most vulnerable in society. Disabled people are paying nine times more towards reducing the deficit than the average citizen. The potential repeal of the Human Rights Act by the Conservative Party will affect asylum seekers most of all. The promised £12bn cuts to the welfare budget will transform the lives of thousands of people whom charities exist to serve. For legions of their beneficiaries, nothing is more important than where these cuts will fall. At their heart, charities are about speaking for the powerless, disaffected and vulnerable yet during this election campaign their views are largely silent.

Quite right. Apart from the Greens and the SNP, the major UK parties all promise further spending cuts and the odd tax rise here and there - which affect the poorest and the richest in turn. Their manifestos may well increase demand for the third sector while, perhaps, putting our sources of government funding in further doubt. Yet, despite the prospects for the future, the third sector is too often unable to speak out and give its views.

Business leaders, of course, have been as loud as ever. Rosamund points to a letter from 200 business CEOs in the Telegraph this month, endorsing the Conservative plans for the country:

These corporate chief executives were writing in a personal capacity but the Telegraph and the rest of the media made no secret that they represented companies employing more than half a million people. It’s questionable how relevant that is. Being an employee, customer, or supplier of one of these companies doesn’t remotely signify you endorse the political stance of its chief executive.

Charities speak for millions of beneficiaries, staff, trustees and members. Our expertise on the front line and in policy-making gives us formidable knowledge which informs government policy and public debate. We cannot afford not to continue the clamour for a Free Society, as ACEVO set out in our 2015 Manifesto and as we’ve been pushing for ever since.

Andrew Purkis has worked in detail through the history of charity campaigning regulation in his blog. He is rightly concerned about the Charity Commission’s impending review of CC9, and about the way their recent decisions on cases like the Oxfam ‘Perfect Storm’ campaign have worsened the ‘chilling effect’ we have faced for two years now.

In his words:

… despite a short term pre-election period of relative calm on this front, we find ourselves headed backwards towards the corrosive vagueness and instability of the 1980s. To have relatively clear guidance (CC9) but then confuse and undermine it through imprecise and negative public utterances and supplementary guidance, is poor regulation. This is good neither for the sector not for the reputation of the Charity Commission. The British public, who owe so much to the non-party political activity of charities, including churches, from the Abolition of the Slave Trade onwards, deserve a lot better.

It’s in the belief that third sector regulation can be better that we started our Low Commission on Third Sector Regulation. It’s been taking evidence far and wide, from ACEVO members, regulators and other experts. Its results are out soon after the election. Keep an eye on our policy blog for updates, and I’ll keep you posted too.

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