Monday 4 April 2016

Europe and the Charity Voice

I have just stepped down as the Secretary General of Euclid, the third sector leaders network, after 10 years. During this time I have become convinced of the importance of the EU and the value it brings to our third sector. It is true that the EU is a ghastly bureaucracy, and that it has a centralising tendency when we need more devolved and decentralised power. I used every opportunity to argue for a Europe of people, not institutions. We made some headway and the EU have made significant advances in promoting social innovation and promoting social finance. The fact we are in the EU provided a great platform for us to promote our civil society and its value - we have been doing this particularly in the newer EU countries where we have organised peer to peer learning and exchanges.

Clearly the EU needs to go further on how it uses and advances civil society but will this happen with the UK outside of the EU?  I don't think so. 

I know how I will vote in June; to stay. But the great thing about a referendum is my vote is simply one among the many. And everyone in our charity sector; leaders, volunteers, supporters, will decide for themselves. Its not for ACEVO to tell anyone how to vote, but it is the job of an umbrella body  to be part of the debate and encourage that debate.

In February, we asked ACEVO members what we should do on the EU referendum. They spoke, and the response was clear. More than half  wanted us to speak out on behalf of staying in the EU. This is a process which we have already begun, as I spoke about the costs of Brexit to the charity sector last month .

The recent Charity Commission guidance is unfortunately another example of them overreaching themselves, and going beyond powers in directing charities in an area where charities must decide for themselves in line with their mission and their view on the effects on beneficiaries . Their advice is already unraveling, but the latest advice is still flawed and many charities have expressed your anger about that advice (announced, I noted, in the Telegraph rather than in the usual way which seems to be another unhealthy development by the Commission). Both NCVO and us are taking this matter further with them. Legal advice is that charities are entitled to take a view. 

For me the one part of the advice - about how issues affecting funding not being ones you can consider - is particularly odd. The naivety that we should be able to just replace one stream of income with another, and that anyway it doesn't really matter how much money we get and this doesn't affect  how well we can fulfill our purpose and meet the needs of our beneficiaries is breathtaking.

International NGOs are particularly impacted by falls in sterling, and the markets have been very clear that a Brexit will hit the pound. This matters to charities. Will the government replace European funding streams that have been crucial yo many charities, especially in regeneration?  Who knows, but it is a key issue for a charity that is facing a financial crisis. A charity that is finding funding so hard they wonder if they can survive is fully entitled to worry about us leaving the EU. And to say so.

There is a more fundamental issue here; trust and confidence on the regulator. This recent advice, coming on top of revelations about contacts with the IEA on the gagging clause and articles by the Chair of the Commission are worrying many in our sector. We need a strong regulator. They must be above the ideological fray. Are they?

Charity commissioners are entitled to their views and to express them 

But the news that Prins, one of the Commissioners, has published a supporting essay for the wretched sock puppet gang will certainly raise eyebrows. Still, we must assume that if a Charity Commissioner is free to express his views on leaving the EU those of us in our sector (the majority I'm sure) must be free to express ours in favour of staying. 

This news will inevitably raise further questions about the Commissions advice and how far this has been tainted by an ideological, not a regulatory, view ?