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This year’s Conservative Party Conference is taking place online between 3 and 6 October. In light of this, Baroness Barran, Minister for Civil Society, has authored this blog for NPC on the government’s programme for charities. We have also recently published this blog by Rachael Maskell MP, Shadow Minister for the Voluntary and Community Sector. To hear Baroness Barran’s thoughts on the future of the sector, book your ticket to our upcoming annual conference. NPC Ignites is taking place online on 14 and 15 October 2020.

My brief from NPC for this blog was short and to the point—‘What does the government think of the voluntary sector and what is it planning?’ I will try and make my answer equally succinct! This has been an extraordinary year for charities and social enterprises—throwing up challenges many of us had never imagined—and revealing the generosity of those who work, volunteer and donate to the sector.

For starters, we don’t think of the voluntary sector as a single ‘thing’. A huge part of the sector—about 135,000 charities (with income below £100,000) and many more social enterprises have little or no formal link with government. They don’t typically receive funding from us and their relationship is indirect—covering everything from safeguarding guidance to the work of the Charity Commission. In some years, their work might be less visible centrally—although much appreciated and valued by constituency MPs. But in 2020, we are all deeply grateful for the incredible effort of just these small charities who have been running food banks, delivering shopping for neighbours, calling those who are lonely and helping our communities to stay connected during the pandemic. There are a million (maybe several million) unsung heroes and heroines out there and we send you the greatest thank you possible.

At the other end of the scale, the government—local and central—is the second largest single funder of the voluntary sector (after the general public) through around £16bn of grants and contracts, largely delivered by a smaller number of large charities and social enterprises. We work with them because we believe that they have a special and trusted relationship with the communities they serve, and they share with us a responsibility to spend public money well. It is perhaps here that there is a tension between the all-important independence of the voluntary sector, and its place in helping to deliver public services. It will come as no surprise to those of you who know me that I believe better data and transparency (and government has a role to play here too of course) is crucial to help us understand where there is the greatest need, how our money is best spent, and what really works to make a difference in people’s lives. I believe that it is entirely healthy for there to be both agreement and differences in opinion between the government and parts of the voluntary sector about how to achieve different policy priorities, such as ‘levelling up’ for example. We all need ‘critical friends’ to help us challenge our approaches.

 Stewardship of the sector

Looking forward, I believe that government can play a really helpful role in the stewardship of the sector. We can help unlock resources in the form of time through our support of volunteering, skills by linking different organisations together, and of course money. Our support for the voluntary sector with £750m of grants was the first ‘sector specific’ package announced by the government in response to the impact of the pandemic on the sector. Most recently we secured an additional £85m of funding from foundations and philanthropists through the Community Match Challenge and I hope we can do more in this area. Similarly, our work on social impact bonds and dormant assets have helped to provide the all-important long-term capital to address important issues such as financial inclusion, youth employment and wider life chances. We are working on other ideas, while also delighted with the changes to the Social Value Act which we hope will provide huge opportunities for charities and social enterprises to access the £49bn of government contracts—both in terms of income but also in driving social impact across the country. We have seen Covid-19 act as a driver of innovation in terms of use of digital—and will work to make sure this is accessible to all.

Finally, I would like to thank the many charities who have taken the time to welcome me on visits, whether physical or now virtual. I have also really benefited from the input of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Youth Steering Group, my BAME support network and countless local volunteer coordinators as we have navigated the challenges thrown up by the pandemic. It is such a privilege to represent the breadth and diversity of civil society organisations and I will continue to do my best to champion them and the communities they represent.

Thank you to Baroness Barran, Minister for Civil Society.

Baroness Barran, Minister for Civil Society, has authored this blog for @NPCthinks on the government’s programme for charities. More here on the need for 'better data and transparency' in the sector: Click To Tweet

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