21 March 2016
These days, even a weekend is a long time in politics. And what a weekend it’s been: we’ve had Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) resigning, Osborne’s Budget challenged by his colleagues, the Treasury backing down over reforms to personal independence payments (PIP), and insiders asking questions about the seemingly ineluctable tide of cuts to benefits. There have been allegations and counter-allegations from within the Conservative Party, and commentary and predictions by the bucketload from everyone else.
How does this affect charities and what lessons does it hold for the sector? Clearly such a high level Ministerial resignation and No. 11’s retreat on PIPs matter to charities that have campaigned against cuts to welfare in general and disability benefits in particular—including groups like the Disability Benefit Consortium. For charities campaigning on other causes, such as the environmental campaigners warning against Brexit, the departure of the anti-EU IDS will be of interest too.
And for those organisations and campaigners with less ‘skin in the game’ in terms of current or immediate policy asks there are also lessons to learn. Hopefully many will be considering how best to respond and whether these policy and leadership changes should trigger a shift in their own approach to engaging with Whitehall.
Independent advisor, John Tizard, for example has argued that, as a general rule, ‘it is vital for charities to maintain a dialogue with Government; to discuss options; and to advise on how policy might best be implemented’. He also notes that ‘there are times when it is better to be shouting from the side lines and opposing in principle that which is deemed to be beyond redemption by modest reform.’
In a recent NPC blog Champollion’s Simon Buckby highlighted the pitfalls of resorting to protesting from the side lines rather than engaging constructively. He feels many charities are ‘retreating from the hard work that has always been needed to win arguments in the media’, instead limiting themselves to Twitter and, in the process, becoming de-skilled in the art of negotiation and lobbying.
Choosing whether to go with the grain—responding to government proposals—or against the grain—by opposing them in principle—is clearly a complex decision for a charity, or group of charities. But being ready to engage when the moment is right is just as important. Tizard argues that the current government upheaval is such a moment.
There are signs that charities share this view and are already seizing on such an opportunity. MS Society, for example, issued a statement on Saturday calling on IDS’s successor Stephen Crabb to consider ‘a fundamental reform to the assessment process for all disability benefits’, adding that they ‘look forward to working with him constructively’. Before Crabb has even taken a seat in his new ministerial office, charities are agitating to negotiate with him over what happens next in policy affecting their beneficiaries.
This is precisely the kind of bold action that charities can pull off when they decide to. Of course charities need to steer clear of party politics, and there are new policies we need to be careful of, not least the Lobbying Act. But as Tizard puts it, it is our ‘duty to speak up’ and to insert ourselves into the public debate.
Now is the time for boldness, not retreat.