October/November 2013 Analysis: Political dialogue

Becky Slack found the main political party conferences lacking in any sector narrative, but there was interesting debate on the fringes

If last year’s party conference season signified the “cooling of attitudes towards charities” by government, then this year it was positively frozen. Whereas David Cameron had managed to find room for one mention of the Big Society in his 2012 closing speech, this year there was nothing, not even a sniff of recognition for the charitable sector nor the many millions of people who give their time and/or money to help others.

Not that the other two main party leaders fared much better. Even Ed Miliband, former charities minister, didn’t see fit to mention the role of voluntary organisations in ‘making Britain better’ in his closing speech. To hear his views on this area, an invitation to the ACEVO Labour party reception was required. Here he highlighted how the charity sector is essential to tackling Britain’s social challenges and “crucial to the future of one nation and the future of Britain”.

Policy announcements relating to the sector were also pretty much non-existent. No new incentives aimed at increasing giving, no new pots of money, no new ideas at all it seemed. Indeed the only policy that referenced the sector was George Osborne’s Help to Work scheme that asks charities to offer volunteering positions to the long-term unemployed.

When it came to conversations about the value the third sector offers the UK and other communities around the world, one had to head to the fringes where, in meeting rooms, theatres and restaurants dotted around Glasgow, Brighton and Manchester, charities had partnered with think-tanks and media outlets to host panel discussions and debates.

Political challenges
At the Liberal Democrat conference for example, delegates could have attended a Medical Aid for Palestinians fringe event where Tony Laurence, chief executive of the charity, talked through some of the challenges of resolving the humanitarian crisis in Palestine while the political
situation is so volatile.

While at the Conservatives, delegates interested in the Syria conflict could have learned just how dangerous the situation on the ground is for aid organisations by attending the Islamic Relief fringe with Justine Greening. Conversation at this event focused on the complexities of negotiating with multiple actors to create a safe humanitarian corridor that will allow aid to reach those who need it. It was a valuable opportunity for the organisation, explains Jehangir Malik.

“Party conference season is an important time for organisations like Islamic Relief to communicate our concerns to politicians and promote the work we do,” says Malik, the aid organisation’s UK director. “Last autumn we had fringe debates at the Labour and Conservative conferences on what can be done to protect the most vulnerable countries and communities against natural disasters. This year we were able to ask the Secretary of State to ensure that no stone is left unturned in diplomatic efforts to improve humanitarian access and bring about peace talks.”

The fringe events also provided a platform for charities looking to launch or promote reports, such as that by World Vision on preventing early marriage or that by Anthony Nolan on how the NHS is failing patients who undergo lifesaving bone marrow transplants – a report that calls for national guidelines so that every patient receives the same level of care.

Wider impact
However, it wasn’t all about single issue events. There was plenty going on that tackled some of the challenges and opportunities that are pertinent to the wider charity sector.

Issues such as charity chief executive salaries, for example. Readers can’t fail to have seen the barrage of criticism directed towards those organisations that pay their leaders more than £100,000 a year. “The leaders of some of the biggest charities risk bringing ‘the wider charitable world into disrepute’ by taking large pay rises while donations are falling, according to the regulator”, wrote the Daily Telegraph in August.

John Low, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation addressed this negative coverage at his organisation’s three fringe events, using them as an opportunity to criticise both the Charity Commission for its “bizarre” response to the backlash and for “making statements that undermine public trust in charities”, and trustees of charities, which he accused of failing to defend their own organisations.

“I am very disappointed that the chairs and trustees of charities have been absolutely silent on the matter. They are the ones responsible for running the charities, for setting the pay. If they set [the salaries], they should be willing to defend them,” he said.

Meanwhile, funding, as always, was the focus of several sessions. The Social Investment Forum, for example, kicked off its series of fringe events with the launch of a new model of funding at the Liberal Democrat conference. Local Impact Funds, which have been designed to work closely with Local Enterprise Partnerships, offer a new way of providing “simple finance for local charities and enterprises”.

They will bring together local and national partners and investors to provide tailored support for organisations, which will help them become investment ready and enable scaling up and growth: see www.charitytimes.com on September 18 for more on this.

Economic landscape
Meanwhile, at the Labour party fringe, Nick O’Donohoe, chief executive of Big Society Capital reminded delegates that social investment is not the panacea to the charity sector’s funding woes. It is not a replacement for grant funding and has been designed to support organisations in very specific ways, he said.

Also at the Labour party conference fringe, Gareth Thomas MP reflected on the current political and economic landscape for charities and how government rhetoric has the potential to have an adverse impact on the number of people willing to donate time and money.

Thomas, who was Shadow Minister for Civil Society at the time of the conference, said: “If the challenge is to persuade zerogivers to get active, what you don’t do is start attacking charities in the way we’ve started to see a range of government figures doing. It seems like a very different environment for charities to be making their pitch to volunteers than what David Cameron offered when he talked about the ‘big society’ as the answers to the problems of Britain.”

Thomas also called for greater coordination and joint working between the sector’s three largest bodies: the Big Lottery fund, Big Society Capital and the Charity Commission, something he feels is essential if critical issues such as funding and maintaining volunteering levels are to be addressed.

“It ought to be the job of the government to set the priorities for these three sector bodies,” he said, “and at the moment I don’t see that”, emphasising how the current government has failed to coordinate a “clear, coherent strategy”.

Social economy
However, this is not for the want of trying, according to Nick Hurd, minister for Civil Society. Speaking at the Social Economy Alliance fringe in Manchester he referred to the “constant frustration” he feels at some departments’ lack of enthusiasm for the social economy.

When asked whether enough had been done to promote the charity sector, he admitted that the answer was “no”, saying that many public sector bodies are not ambitious enough in their transactions with charities and social enterprises – primarily down to their aversion to risk.

Civil servants feel their first responsibility is to protect ministers’ reputations, which means playing it safe, he said: “But that underestimates the risk of the status quo. We’re paralysed by the idea that might fail, but look at what we achieved in the past, when we had all the money.”

“There are departments of government that don’t get this stuff at all. It’s our responsibility and our mission to push it so that they do,” he added.

However it wasn’t all bad news. Hurd added: “We have a window of opportunity now to [help government departments understand the sector], because circumstances have changed. People are having to think differently.”

Becky Slack is a freelance journalist

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