UK parliament building

A new political year brings a new chance for charities

By Patrick Murray 12 September 2016

What has changed?

After a turbulent summer MPs returned to Westminster last week with the terrain much changed. Brexit will dominate politics and policy for months and years to come, and the country effectively has a new government. The aftermath of the EU referendum has seen a different strain of more socially conservative MPs take some key posts in government, some of whom have spent a long spell in the political wilderness. Meanwhile some of the authors of the Cameron ‘liberal conservative’ project find themselves on the backbenches.

Many in the charity sector will be wondering how this new political environment will affect them and the causes and beneficiaries they exist to serve.

Beyond the more obvious changes—such as a the move of the Office of Civil Society and Innovation to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport—the sector ought to be paying attention to more subtle shifts in political discourse. While the new Prime Minister Theresa May’s rhetoric on social justice has generally pointed to a continuation of the life chances agenda (which we argue holds some promise for charities) early signs suggest a shift here too. Last week the new Secretary of State for Justice Liz Truss MP pulled back from the prison reform ideas that formed a large part of this agenda. This taken with the rhetoric in the Prime Minister’s recent headline-grabbing speech on education suggests we may be facing a new government that is less focused on those struggling with the myriad of issues covered in the life chances agenda: mental health, criminal justice, drugs and alcohol, and youth unemployment. A gloomy prospect.

How can the sector approach these changes constructively?

Nevertheless, all this change brings an opportunity for the sector to reflect on what its role in society should be.  We know, for example, that rifts have been exposed by the divisive EU referendum campaign. So what role does the voluntary sector have in bringing communities together? We’ll be examining this question at a free event on 17 November.

And a new government brings with it the chance for charities to state anew how the government could better support them in making a positive difference to the world around us. So the Lords Select Committee on Charities’ recent call for evidence on charity sustainability—now extended until 1 October—is timely, offering the sector another great opportunity to set out its stall.

What has NPC said to government about the role of the sector?

Building on the first report in our State of the Sector programme, Boldness in times of change, we responded to the Select Committee’s consultation with our ideas about what could support the sector to deliver ever greater impact. We will publish our full response in due course, but here are a few highlights from what we said:

  • The sector itself is hugely diverse. What matters is whether organisations are delivering for the causes and beneficiaries they exist to serve—in short: are they having an impact?
  • The changing role and shape of the state has had profound implications for some charities. The impact of shifts from grants to commissioning has been compounded by ever larger contracts being commissioned out. What we need is a commissioning approach that provides a level playing field, where competition is focused on who can deliver the greatest impact, not necessarily at the lowest cost.
  • The space for civil society to speak out on important issues is narrowing. From the Lobbying Act, to the ‘gagging’ clause added to grant agreements, to the Charity Commission’s guidance on campaigning in the EU referendum, charities find themselves in an ever more hostile environment. The sector has a legitimate role in raising issues that matter to beneficiaries, and society overall loses out if this role is restricted.
  • The sector faces particular challenges around public trust. Charities should be open and transparent about what has gone wrong, particularly in fundraising, and what needs to be done to fix it. There is still a danger that some organisations fall back on blaming the media rather than working with the public in order to rebuild their trust.
  • The sector lags behind on the digital and data agenda. More needs to be done to build collaborative digital infrastructure that enables sub-sectors (such as the youth sector) to have a greater impact. The government could do more to support this agenda—in particular, by replicating the successful Ministry of Justice Data Lab model in health, employment and education to support charities in better understanding their impact.
  • Charity governance needs particular attention. NPC suggested in our recent paper It starts from the top that boards should have to report on their impact and governance processes to the Charity Commission. The sector needs a more diverse trustee base, and new skills such as expertise in digital, if organisations are to thrive in the modern world. Finally, charities need to be bolder, and boards need a greater appetite for risk, if the sector is to adapt and deliver greater impact in a changing world.

As the summer proved, a week is a long time in politics. Over the autumn months the sector will begin to see how the new government will take forwards their priorities in legislation and spending plans. One thing is for sure though—charities continue to have a crucial place in society and the sector needs to speak up so that the causes and beneficiaries they serve are not left behind.

Read NPC’s response to the Select Committee’s review on charity sustainability.