piles of newslpapers

How did the voluntary sector see in the new year?

By Russell Hargrave 5 January 2016

The family has dispersed and the presents are gone. The remaining tangles of tinsel now look a little sad. The festive season is over for another year.

Even charity obsessives are entitled to a couple of weeks free of worrying about the voluntary sector—but now we’re back. So for those of us hitting our office chairs again with a bump, what did we miss over the festive season?

More scrutiny?

Firstly, Boxing Day saw a bumper Christmas charity story on the front page of The Telegraph: ministers want to extend Freedom of Information (FoI) rules so that they cover voluntary organisations handling large amounts of public money.
It seems like the right principle—if charities receive a lot of taxpayers’ cash, they should be open to formal scrutiny. There is nothing wrong with a mechanism to highlight how public money is being used, and to encourage charities to realise the greatest impact with the money given to them.
NPC would add two caveats. There needs to be a sensible threshold before this kicks in, of course. It is reasonable to subject a charity to FoI requests if they control millions in public contracts, but not if their public income is limited to a few thousand pounds from a local authority. A bigger question turns on what happens to private sector bodies who also win big government contracts to deliver services. If more is demanded of charities then the same must apply to their counterparts in other sectors. This is about greater transparency, not holding charities to a higher standard. What’s good for Action Aid must also be good for A4e.


Settle down

Elsewhere just before Christmas, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced that it will offer four-year funding settlements to any local authority which wants it. This means that budgets could be agreed this year to take local authorities all the way up to 2020, instead of being renegotiated every twelve months (although, typically, the small print allows for ‘exceptional circumstances’ which might mean government cancelling the settlement).

This is something for which local government has pushed for some time, and in times of such tight finances it could be a force for good. Charities providing services have worried, justifiably, about the short-term approach forced on local government, and a settlement taking councils right up to the next general election would allow them to be much more strategic in their decisions. NPC has written about the effect of squeezed local budgets here.


Big numbers from Big Society Capital


Big Society Capital (BSC) published a whole tranche of deal-level data just before Christmas. The release provided figures on the investments it had made up to September 2015.

As with all raw data, detailed analysis of the numbers is much needed, but the figures cover 269 separate capital allocations and £246m in investments (with a further £66m awaiting investment). The short primer published by Pioneers Post is very useful, not just in drawing out the big numbers but in highlighting some of the shortfalls too—BSC has agreed not to release the names of more than 100 investees, seemingly at the investees’ request.

BSC committed to greater transparency earlier in 2015, something requested by NPC and others, so opening up the books like this is very welcome. We are still some way from the level of transparency we called for—which would involve BSC publishing its framework for understanding the social outcomes achieved through its investments—but BSC has promised ‘the publication of this data is very much the beginning…’. So let’s watch this space.


Arise, Sir Harvey


Finally, and on a more personal note, congratulations to Sir Harvey McGrath, knighted for his services to economic growth and public life in the UK. Sir Harvey was one of NPC’s founders back in 2002, still sits on our board, and has been one of the UK’s most impressive philanthropists in his own right for many years. We are very pleased for him and his family.

All in all, an interesting mix to get us started for the new year. As always, we’ll be doing our bit in 2016 to build a stronger, healthier charity sector.