Political party rosettes

Party conference season is almost over, what did we learn?

By Dan Corry 10 October 2014

Four weeks of political debate, promises and set-piece speeches are nearly over. Big ideas in the charity world, best represented by the Big Society rhetoric of 2010 or the musings of Blue Labour, have been replaced by a reversion to a discussion of the basic purpose of charities and their role in public services.

What next for… charity lobbying and campaigning?

Newly-appointed Charities Minister, Rob Wilson, has been associated with the view that campaigning should not be a key role for charities. Some Conservative MPs took this even further and suggested that charities, by campaigning, risked losing their public support. While this may be true for some, our public polling earlier this year found that just under half the public thought charities ought to spend time ‘raising awareness of important issues in society’. So the situation is rather more nuanced than that.

Meanwhile the Labour Shadow Minister, Lisa Nandy—a former charity worker herself—argued that lobbying was part and parcel of much charity work. This was backed up by some of the party’s big beasts: Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan pledged to repeal the Lobbying Act, a promise repeated by Ed Miliband in his introduction to ACEVO’s Red Book for the Voluntary Sector.

The Lib Dems made a similar commitment, even if they didn’t go quite so far. Although they supported the legislation, Lib Dem charity specialist  MP Martin Horwood said that ‘reviewing’ the Lobbying Act will be a priority if the party returns to government. UKIP, meanwhile, are a largely unknown quantity on charity matters—something we need to start to put right now that they are represented in Parliament. But what we do know—again drawn from our polling earlier in the year—is that UKIP supporters look far less favourably than the average on charitable work overseas and the salaries commanded by charity bosses, pointing to a more traditional perception of charities as small organisations doing good in their local community.

What next for… contracts and commissioning?

How public services are delivered, and by whom, is a question of great interest to many in the charity sector. Here it seems the parties have rather different visions.

The ambient noise among Tories seemed to favour expanding payment by results (PbR)—a system for linking contracted income to certain milestones in delivering services. This is controversial among many charities, but the problem lies less with the idea than the way the system plays out in practice. Too often a prime provider can take on service delivery for the government and then pass on risk to sub-contracted charities, who are working with the hardest-to-reach groups and therefore face the biggest challenges in meeting meaningful milestones.

Labour are promising a more positive approach to grants and a review of commissioning to unblock problems for the sector. Both parties are thinking of whether the Social Value Act can be given some real power—although we wait to see how far either will be willing to go to in times of tight public finances to compel commissioners to divert from the cheapest offering if they really want to go with it.

Commissioning is another area in which UKIP’s policies are so far unclear. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, passed a conference motion to strengthen the government’s Work Programme by giving local authority commissioners greater scope to match local needs and ‘specialist charities’ especially targeted at those who need the greatest support.

There seems to be consensus when it comes to the National Citizens Service, with the Conservatives promising a place for every teenager. NPC was involved in some of the evaluation work of the pilot programme. While the most recent evaluation report suggests it is going well, it is an expensive programme and we think any future government should look closely at whether the benefits claimed by participants over the short run are sustained, and on its substitution effects on other volunteering activities and organisations.

Overall, we are left with some clues on where the parties are heading but with a need for further clarity. Hopefully we will find out more when Rob Wilson, Lisa Nandy and Lib Dem Liz Barker do battle at our conference on 23 October.