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We were grateful to have Danny Kruger and Charlotte Pickles virtually join us and over 100 guests this week to discuss the relationship between the charity sector and the government, how charities can rise up its agenda, and explore how current thinking in conservatism squares with that in the sector.

Here’s a recap of a few of the big questions we debated, and you can watch the full video below. Sign up for our forthcoming events at thinkNPC.org/events.

Danny Kruger is a former speechwriter for David Cameron, founder of the charity Only Connect and is now the Member of Parliament for Devizes. He was recently asked by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to conduct a review of the role of civil society in Britain’s coronavirus recovery. You can read our submission here.

Charlotte Pickles is director of the think tank Reform, and a former expert adviser to Ian Duncan Smith when he was the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

 

Does the government care about charities?

Talk to anyone in the charity sector and it’s likely they will feel quite overlooked by politicians (although a few will tell you this is a good thing).

It’s a feeling which has only been sharpened by the covid crisis. Despite massive campaigns like #nevermoreneeded, the government’s rescue package was small by comparison to other sectors. Many lamented that it did go far enough, and indeed we are now starting to see job losses in large numbers.

In his opening remarks, Danny Kruger acknowledged that political attention often is on “the stuff with the big budgets” in the private and public sectors. But, through doing his review, it had been brought home to him how much politicians genuinely care about civil society and social infrastructure, especially in their constituencies.

MPs told him about irreplaceable civil society organisations in their communities (and those who watch them will know photo ops with the local charity are the bread and butter of many MPs twitter accounts) but Danny also described how MPs referenced stubborn challenges that they know the social sector is the answer to. He argued that just because politicians don’t spend all their time talking about charities doesn’t mean they don’t value them.

Similarly, while Charlotte admitted the government’s £750m for charities could have been a little more generous, she suggested that we judge the rescue package by its outcome not its price tag. There are of course some issues with doing this, given the sheer number and range of grants, which you can see in our breakdown.

Looking forwards though, she recommended thinking about the various “headwinds” this government is dealing with where charities can make themselves indispensable. She argued that, with the new ‘Red Wall’ voters Boris Johnson picked up in 2019, this government can’t afford to ignore inequality, Black Lives Matter and the democratic deficit across the UK. These are the big-ticket items, Charlotte argued, on which there will be real action in this parliament. Charities need to make themselves part of the conversation.

But how to make yourself heard? Both of our speakers agreed that the secret to getting a hearing from the government is relationships. Charlotte recounted how frustrating she found it as an adviser to Ian Duncan Smith, when charities would go to the media to vent about an issue, before even having a conversation with her. Meanwhile Danny described how inbox-clogging standardised campaign emails are not only thoroughly unpersuasive, but are actually counter-productive as they take up time which should be devoted to casework.

 

Living locally and levelling up

Why is it that the same places that were left behind 40 years ago are still left behind today? Expressing his frustration, Danny argued how in his view the way to genuinely ‘level up’ the country is to put communities in charge of their own destinies.

This ties into the democratic deficit ‘headwind’ identified by Charlotte. The reason we should think differently about this government compared to those led by David Cameron or Theresa May, she argued, is the promise Boris Johnson made to the people who voted Conservative for the first time (sometimes in generations). The people who put this government in power look very different to the people who put previous Conservative governments into power, so there is a much greater commitment and need to deliver for them in this parliament and make good on that promise. As a slogan then, “Levelling Up” has a lot more behind it than the “Big Society” did.

But what will localism look like in practice? It was clear from both panellists that there is still a lot to be defined.

For Danny, social infrastructure is about the places in which community happens. Places of worship are a big one, but also traditional institutions like libraries and youth clubs which have borne the brunt of austerity. In lockdown we are literally living locally now. It will be interesting to see what impact this has.

One way to properly invest in our communities is through government procurement; a massive budget compared to that of the voluntary sector. Danny was adamant that the Social Value Act needs to be beefed up, extended and embedded into practice rather than being a bolt on. He was just as clear that the Shared Prosperity Fund should have a social component, so whilst he had no new information about how it is being designed, he stressed that “giving it all the LEPs to buy motorways” wasn’t the most effective use of the money.

There are still many questions about Levelling Up which need answering; but for Charlotte, the vagueness is a great opportunity for charities. The government needs answers, she argued, and the civil service is not close to the new Conservative voters it needs to deliver for. Conversely, many charities are. So, if the relationship issues can be ironed out, there is great potential for the government and charities to deliver for people.

Of course, that may be easier said than done.

 

Faith, flag and family

Charlotte reflected back to the time following the Brexit vote when, as Managing Editor at UnHerd, she had commissioned Andy Cook to write about the voluntary sectors view of the vote. He found a problem with groupthink in the sector and a refusal to engage with ‘faith, flag and family’ agenda at a leadership level. She argued that the scale of this cultural difference could be a risk for the sector.

Similarly, in Danny’s view, ‘faith, flag and family’ is part of our mainstream culture, not just the government’s agenda, yet it is not represented in the charity sector. If we embrace pluralism, he argued, then it would find more of an expression in the sector just as it had (by his reading) in the election result. This doesn’t mean the charity sector needs to become more conservative. Rather, he described “a plurality of voices, a messy civil society and that means a lot of organisations who are against the mainstream culture”.

Several people in the zoom chat did say that they find ‘faith, flag and family’ to be racist; which invited the challenge from Charlotte as to what attendees were reading into it. She wondered if people were loading assumptions onto that statement which are not fair representations of what people who hold those views actually think.

 

Where do we go from here?

All in all, it was clear from our discussion that the barriers to a productive relationship between the charity sector and the government (and perhaps especially a Conservative government) remain daunting on both sides, but that they are not insurmountable. Charities should recognise that Boris Johnson’s government is very different to ones it has experienced before. If cultural barriers can be overcome, and the government demonstrates its commitment to social infrastructure, then there seems to be overwhelming potential for charities to help the government understand and support the communities who lent it their votes in 2019.

After all, as Danny says: “Even if most charity leaders at the moment are all liberal remainers who hate Boris, they’ll – I hope – overlook that.”

Next we’ll be talking to Labour’s charity spokesperson about what Starmerism means for the charity sector, how (or if) it’s different to Corbynism, and how they believe the charity sector can play a role in Britain’s coronavirus recovery. Sign up to our newsletter to stay up to date with all our upcoming events.

 

Watch the full conversation with Danny Kruger and Charlotte Pickles

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