Caron Bradshaw: The civil society strategy must avoid half measures

I am writing this in the wake of our very successful annual conference held once again in London at the QEII Centre. The conference was excellently received and we were glad to be joined by the Minister for Civil Society, Tracey Crouch, who spoke about the government’s new civil society strategy.

We have been here before, of course. Perhaps I am showing my age, but I remember the former charities minister, Nick Hurd, speaking at CFG’s conference, and other sector events, with similar language about the desire to re-set the relationship between government and charities.

Nick was a great minister and a great champion, and we have noticed in recent years how much we need that kind of positive voice within government. So, I was delighted to hear how Tracey respected the voice of our sector, how she wanted government to recognise the value of charities and how she wanted her new strategy to lay out a bold vision for the future.

The government is right to put forward a strategy to support civil society and charities are the key component of civil society. There has been a lot of focus on re-building our economy after the financial crash, but focusing on economy is lopsided. We need a strong society as much as we need a strong economy if we are going to realise the kind of future we need.

As you would expect, CFG has been heavily involved in advising government on what this strategy should look like. We have attended a number of roundtables and briefings with officials and ministers on the strategy.

The government has said the civil society strategy should be seen as the counterpart to the government’s industrial strategy and I concur.

However, throughout the engagement exercise, there has been an undertone from the government that although it is “ambitious” for our sector, there is no money around to deliver the strategy. The industrial strategy by contrast has been backed up by tens of billions in government spending through the creation of new investment funds and tax breaks.

Although we have a positive case for our sector being consistently put forward by ministers, we must not suddenly forget that warm words are not enough on their own. We need policies to be backed up with investment, if they are going to succeed.

CFG has made clear in its submission that we need investment in the sector through fundamental reform of our tax system, our regulatory infrastructure, investing in skills and development and through reform to public service commissioning. These will also cost money if they are to be done correctly. But we would argue that the return on investment for government is significant.

CFG has argued that if the government is serious about making our communities better places to live, about engaging more people in our democracy and society and creating new partnerships between businesses and charities, then it needs to see a growing charity sector. More financially resilient charities will naturally create these outcomes, in the same way that government believes backing business creates jobs and higher tax revenues.

The government doesn’t need to direct our sector; it just needs to create the conditions
for growth. We see these as an effective tax system, effective regulation, investment in financial skills to support good management and reform to the way that government procures from charities.

Under the Victorians, we saw the emergence of many of the defining features of our sector, from the Charity Commission to the creation of endowed foundations to formal tax breaks for charities. They recognised that by creating the right conditions for charity, that it would grow and leave a positive impact beginning a virtuous circle.

We need the government to take a similar approach. Nothing that is worth doing is cheap, easy or quick. But if the government has the patience, has the willingness to invest and a positive vision, this strategy could leave a lasting legacy.

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