What the Tories think about charities

14 September 2009

2010 seems likely see a change of government in the UK. Despite an election being more than eight months away, the jostling for position has already begun among the political-savvy in the charitable world.

For the Tories [the official Opposition and, it is widely assumed, the government-in-waiting], charities are an important part of mending ‘broken Britain’, a crucial element of democracy, and a place where people can help themselves out of poverty. Nothing new in this you might say.

In fact some commentators have questioned whether there is any daylight between the Tories and the present Labour government. Of course in policy terms this remains to be seen. But the 2008 Conservative Party green paper, increasingly vocal shadow ministers, and the noises coming from right-leaning think tanks, all give clues to an emerging position.

Based on these sources and recent conversations, below are three areas where I think the main differences could lie:

1. A clearer division between the state and charities. The Tories think there is too much government interference in charity. The 2008 green paper introduced a new term – quasi-voluntary organisations, or QVOs – to describe those that receive a big public subsidy: code for those charities that the Tories think are not really charities.

They are concerned that contracts between charities and local authorities are too prescriptive and stifle innovation. To counter this, they have indicated a possible return to old-fashioned grant funding. They also think that money raised from the national lottery should be free of government control.

2. A preference for the small and local. The Tories see local-ness as charities’ key asset. In a recent interview, shadow minister for the third sector Nick Hurd outlined a vision centring around an ideal of ‘smaller organisations embedded in communities’ and using a ‘bottom-up approach’.

Allied to this vision is a suspicion of big charities. At a seminar earlier in the year, I heard Iain Duncan Smith [former Tory Leader] express his preference for smaller charities, which he sees as less bureaucratic and having a better understanding of the needs of their beneficiaries.

However, this position is not consistently held across all departments. Some shadow ministers have made it plain that they see a role in service delivery for big charities – not just at a local level but possibly in running prisons and large-scale social care services.

3. Getting rid of ‘political’ campaigning. There is concern that campaigning charities are beginning to stray into territory that threatens their independence and undermines the rest of the sector. Tory activists have reacted badly to what they see as too many charities stepping out of line and campaigning on overtly political matters, such as in the case of the Smith Institute. A source close to the action recently described campaigning to me as a ‘bit of a red meat item’. Expect the rules to be tightened up.

2010 may herald a new era for the charitable sector. This will be decided by whether the Conservative Party forms the next government and how its views crystallise.

But change will also depend on how a new government is able to influence local authorities, as well as what surprises it finds after it is elected. And there are also the inevitable budget cuts to consider. We will have to wait and see what happens.