Wednesday 25 November 2015

What isn't George telling us?

So now we have it. The Comprehensive Spending Review.

What concerns us more than what we were told today is what we weren't. The Chancellor brushed over cuts to budgets, focusing on restrictions on Whitehall budgets, which will fall by £1.9 billion. But there are cuts to come, that is beyond doubt. We saw the start of this with £22 billion of cuts announced across the Department of Health, despite increased spending on the NHS. The Department of Transport will see it’s budget fall by 37%, as capital expenditure rises by 50%. DEFRA's budget falls by 15%, as £2 billion more is spent on flood defenses. An already bare government is further retreating as all but the most essential funding is cut. After a Comprehensive Spending Review, we still know less than we would like.

Big Lottery Fund
There have been some suggestions recently that the Big Lottery Fund would see its funding cut by £320 million. ACEVO was robust in its response; working with the NCVO we were clear that such a blow would be disastrous for charities across England. We are encouraged to see that the Chancellor has heeded our advice, and protected the Big Lottery Fund, and the work it does. Further than this, we welcome the news that the revenue from the 'Tampon Tax' will be directed to charities which work in women's health and services.

A Glimmer?
There are positive signs within this statement. We welcome an increase in spending on mental health of £600 million. The NHS will welcome a £6 billion cash boost. But, we’ll be ever monitoring the effect of budgetary cuts to social care and local community services. We said this after the Summer Budget and as the 'care crisis' remains unabated - the social care precept announced today will not be nearly enough to sustain the sector - we must  continue to speak up.

Public Services Constitution
I'm clear that better public services does not need to mean more Government spending. A key recommendation of our recently published report "Remaking the State" (launched at our great annual conference last week!) calls for a Public Services Constitution to enshrine in law the right of people to receive the services they deserve. Our report sets out a way to marry fiscal prudence with the better delivery of public services.

We know third sector organisations deliver cost effective services that are community focused. What would be a disaster in social care is if councils spend the amount they have been given themselves - rather than through empowering the third sector to deliver.

Overall, what thought has been given to the consequences of these major cuts on charities and the millions they serve? There was no evidence of that in this statement. Charities provide the essential cohesion that our society needs, particularly now. They are the glue that holds communities together. It’s our civil society that is so admired around the world and which makes Britain great.

And in particular, charities are a safety net which make a crucial difference to people’s lives. That is why any cuts made that affect charities' ability to deliver services are so damaging. There is no doubt these cuts will undermine charities.

Monday 16 November 2015

Monteverdi, Paris and health problems

In London this weekend.  My sister Lucy, a member of the Royal Choral Society, singing in the glorious Monteverdi vespers in Southwark Cathedral.  My nephew Julian, who is currently working in Paris was there - having spent the weekend back in London; much to his relief no doubt, but inevitably casts a gloom. Mass at All Saints, Margaret St on Sunday obviously focused thoughts on the Paris massacres. A thoughtful sermon made the point that we should think past the rather obvious politicians responses - villains and heroes - and reflect on what this means for our place in wider society and our communities. 

We have to avoid the stereotypes that portray Muslim communities as a threat and indeed work with community leaders in those communities to tackle alienation and build a cohesive society; particular working with younger Muslims. That's why I believe ACEVO's work with the Muslim Charity Forum is so important and why we will redouble our efforts to work with Muslim charities.

What a strange world the Treasury inhabits. Up to their necks in the spending review and you might expect a rather more radical look at spending.  I saw a headline in the Standard which screamed "if Osborne wants to control spending he must cut the NHS". Dramatic! But hides a truth.

So we heard last week that we have had the highest ever figures for people stuck in hospital beds despite being fit for discharge but care is not in place and that we will face a winter crisis in A+E. We know that the third sector can play a central role in keeping frail elderly people out of A+E and getting them home early. Yet is anyone on the phone from the Treasury or DH asking us to do that? Obviously not!

And social care in councils is on the verge of collapse. There is a direct link between care breakdowns, charity cutbacks and demands on the NHS.

Time for a major shift of resources out of hospitals and into community support, social care and prevention.

And don't even get me onto the stupid decision not to introduce a sugar tax....

Monday 9 November 2015

Guy Fawkes and lifting the veil at the Charity commission

Had a rather fun day on Guy Fawkes- which marks my 63rd birthday, some would say appropriately. A great lunch with the family at the restaurant that is run by the charity "Clinks" in Brixton Prison.  Its a social enterprise that provides much needed training for people in prison so they have a good chance of work on release.  We need more such initiatives if we are to break the revolving door in prison - where half the people who have been released are back inside in a year. The lack of good rehabilitation programmes inside and outside prison is shameful.  The so called rehabilitation revolution has not provided the opportunity for charities and social enterprises, we expected; but Michael Gove's interest in reform inside prisons shows much promise.

I was fascinated by a recent report in Third Sector Magazine by Andy Ricketts - commenting on the recent CAGE/JRCT case.  Its worth reproducing in full as it casts an interesting light on the internal workings at the Commission and the role of non executives v executives.

By Andy Ricketts

"The Charity Commission has declined to comment on emails reportedly sent by William Shawcross, its chair, in which he warned that charities supporting the advocacy group Cage were "funding a front for jihadist terrorists".

The Guardian newspaper has reported that emails from the regulator, filed with the High Court as part of the judicial review case brought by Cage against the commission yesterday, show that Shawcross and other commission board members were keen to prevent Cage from receiving further charitable funding. The emails included a section that called the advocacy group "a largely odious organisation".

The regulator acted earlier this year when Cage, which is not a charity, attracted widespread media attention because one of its staff members said at a press conference that Mohammed Emwazi, allegedly also known as the Islamic State executioner "Jihadi John", had been a "beautiful young man" who was radicalised because of the attention of the UK security services.

The led to the Charity Commission contacting the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Roddick Foundation, which had both provided funding to Cage, to ask that they provide assurances they would never fund it again. The JRCT subsequently said that it agreed to the request after what it described as "intense regulatory pressure".

Emails from Shawcross and other commission board members were disclosed during preparation of the judicial review case, brought by Cage with the JRCT as an interested party, into the regulator’s actions in respect of Cage.  

The Guardian reported that the emails, which were referenced during the hearing yesterday but not read out in court, showed the extent to which Shawcross was keen to prevent Cage from receiving further charitable funding.

The newspaper said that an email from Shawcross told board members "charities surely cannot fund bodies that are acting against the national interest… Surely we can say that any charity supporting Cage has clearly not done due diligence and has put its own reputation and that of the sector at risk?"

Other board members – Peter Clarke, former head of the Metropolitan Police’s anti-terror branch, Orlando Fraser and Gwythian Prins – also expressed frustration that the commission was unable to take action against charities that had funded Cage, the paper said.

The paper reported that Clarke asked Michelle Russell, now director of investigations, monitoring and enforcement at the commission: "Is it legitimate for a donating trust (JRCT) to pick and choose in this way? It seems very strange to me that a charity could seek to justify donations to a largely odious organisation by saying that one small part of its work might be claimed to be charitable."

Shawcross told Russell that charities were "funding a front for jihadist terrorists", The Guardian said. According to the newspaper's report, in one email, dated 27 February, Shawcross said he had "spent the last 24 hours in Washington with senior US government counter-terrorism officials" and that "one senior analyst thought it was astonishing that Cage was not long ago exposed for what it is – a jihadist front".

According to The Guardian, Shawcross said: "We must be robust and, where possible, be seen to be robust, to protect the reputation of the sector as well as ourselves."

The newspaper reported that in March Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland secretary, wrote to Shawcross saying: "It is wholly unacceptable for charities supported by the taxpayer (through the generous tax treatment afforded to all charities) to be funding an extremist group like this one."

The Guardian said Shawcross replied that "both the Roddick Foundation and The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust have ceased funding Cage and will not be doing so in the future".

The judicial review case yesterday ended with Cage withdrawing its case after the three parties agreed a joint statement.

"The Charity Commission does not seek to fetter charities' exercise of discretion whether to fund the charitable activities of Cage for all time, regardless of future changing circumstances," it said.

A spokeswoman for the commission declined to comment on the report or to release or confirm the existence of the emails.

In a statement, Cage said that the commission "should remain impartial and not be driven by the prevailing political aims of a few ideologues in government or sections of the media".

It said: "With the government's announcements of new proposals for counter-extremism, we believe that we are in danger of moving toward an era of 21st century McCarthyism, in which politically motivated witch hunts could be used to persecute innocent people in the guise of counter-terrorism.

"We ask all those in civil society who are committed to fairness and equality to support the work of Cage and safeguard the rule of law for all." 

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Lancashire, Oxfordshire and making life better

This time of year is particularly gorgeous in Charlbury.  The walk across the fields and through the Wychwood forest to my favourite pub; The Plough at Finstock, is at its best in the autumn's changing colours.  And the Hound loves playing with fallen leaves too.  Sunday was All Saints Day and the little Norman church in Shorthampton was celebrating its feast of title.  It takes an hour to walk over the fields to this now deserted village but the walk along the Evenlode valley in the early morning sun was a good reminder of how beautiful our English countryside is.  And then a quiet and peaceful Mass in this small but lovely old church.

Oxfordshire is the most rural of southern counties as I was reminded by Richard Quallington, who is the interim CEO of ACRE - Action for Communities in Rural England. 

Richard is currently reviewing their structure and purpose - as so many bodies are doing against the gloomy economic background of permanent austerity.  Yet we know that umbrella bodies like ACRE perform a vital function.  If we forget capacity and infrastructure we know what happens; Kids Company being in the news again shows this.

And back to the countryside I was up in Lancashire on Monday to visit Stanley Grange, a community for people with learning disabilities, which is now owned by the families of the residents there.  The great charity Future Directions CIC is now running the services on their behalf.  Its a rather lovely place and I can well see why the families of those who live there were so keen to ensure a strong future for the community there. They gave me a visit to see the homes and community facilities and then a splendid tea in the community hall which has magnificent views out over the countryside towards Preston.

And, sweetly, as this is the week of my 63rd birthday, they had baked me a birthday cake. Complete with candles ( though not 63 of them). And I even got a nice chorus of "happy birthday". I was most touched. Very kind of the staff team and residents to organise that.

And how appropriate after the announcements on Friday about plans for the closure of institutions and the scaling up of community facilities.  There is a particular challenge in Lancashire with the closure of Calderstones, the biggest of the NHS hospitals for people with learning disabilities.  The need for careful planning, consultation, involvement of all those people and families involved, as well as the increase in effective community provision will be crucial.  But I know there are some superb charities and community organisations like Future Directions, the National Autistic Society, United Response, Mencap and Dimensions to name but a few who are there to rise to this challenge.  Let's ensure they get the tools and resources to build that better future for people with learning disabilities.