British society is broken. David Cameron repeatedly made this assertion last month as the Social Justice Policy Group’s proposals were published and debated. In spite of all the controversy generated by commitments to strengthen marriage through the tax system, commentators did not challenge the contention that something is seriously wrong in our country. It goes beyond inexorably rising rates of welfare dependency, addictions and violent crime. For most people, depressing statistics are corroborated by first-hand experience of menacing, rude and anti-social behaviour.
In response, David Cameron has developed the language of social responsibility, reminding us that we have a shared duty to tackle the breakdown. Government can only do so much, and action on a seemingly modest scale by individuals, families and communities can have a significant cumulative impact.
Cameron has also called for a much bigger role for the voluntary sector in enabling the most vulnerable make positive changes in their lives. There is now a cross-party consensus that disadvantaged groups, from excluded pupils to drug addicts and the long-term unemployed, are often most effectively assisted by the voluntary sector.
Of course, Gordon Brown will strongly resist Cameron’s attempts to champion the voluntary sector and the Conservatives’ broader social justice agenda. Gordon considers poverty his turf. However Labour’s abject failures should give Conservatives confidence to embrace bold new approaches. Leaked Government plans to cut a further £50 million from an already hopelessly overstretched drugs treatment budget are the latest example of Labour’s empty rhetoric on social justice.
Over the last year I have spent most of my working hours supporting Orlando Fraser on the voluntary sector sub-group of the SJPG. Obviously I hope that many of our proposals will find their way into the next Conservative manifesto. As in its five other areas, the Policy Group set out detailed proposals to strengthen charities and other voluntary bodies, especially in their work providing second chances to the most vulnerable. (An executive summary is available here and Orlando’s Platform article highlighted our main ideas).
Pleasingly, many of the proposals were welcomed by the sector’s umbrella bodies such as NCVO and in the specialist press. Among the most popular suggestions were making it much easier for charities to reclaim Gift Aid by allowing it to be automatically reclaimed on a certain proportion (perhaps 80%) of donations, according to the percentage of taxpayers in the giving public. We also argued that the Compact be given more teeth. This voluntary agreement between the Government and the sector was introduced in 1998 and was supposed to ensure fair funding of charities by the state. However Government’s record of implementation has been very poor and many charities have faced huge problems with cash-flow as a consequence, imperilling their futures.
The most concerning response to our report I read was from the head of one of the sector’s umbrella bodies, who said:
"There is now very little difference in the two parties' attitudes to the sector… both see the third sector as central to economic development and social cohesion."
However it is simply not true that the main parties’ visions for the sector are pretty much the same. Take the delivery of public services. As a result of its awarding of ever larger contracts to a small number of the largest charities, Labour has presided over what IDS has aptly described as the ‘Tescoisation’ of the sector. The vast majority of these large charities do very good and valuable work, but the channeling of statutory funding through big micro-managed contracts is compromising the sector’s ability to deliver diverse and innovative services. Too often the voluntary sector ends up simply doing the government’s work in the government’s way.
A democratisation of funding and commissioning is clearly needed to ensure a diverse, innovative and effective sector. A much greater range of people and groups should have a say in which charities deliver services and receive public funding. Greater use of tax relief, voucher schemes, asset transfer, match funding and community endowments would help balance the current overwhelming emphasis on top-down contracts and grants.
The Government has been making noises about the need for a giving local people a greater say in the delivery of public services, including those delivered by voluntary groups. Although small-scale pilots of ‘individual budgets’ for recipients of social care are taking place, there are very real fears that Brown will halt their full implementation. But as George Osborne made clear in a recent speech, it is vital to endow service users with real choice, for it is the power to walk away from a sub-standard service that most powerfully ensures that users’ voices are heard.
Another SJPG proposal that has great potential to allow smaller voluntary bodies to secure their fair share of funding to enable them to effectively serve their communities is Community Growth Trusts. Award of this new legal status would entitle visionary social entrepreneurs, faith based organisations and community groups to deliver a progressively increasing range of public services in their locality as a reward for proven competence. CGTs would facilitate the creation of many more community hubs like the Bromley by Bow Centre in east London which delivers easily accessible health, employment and other services.
Going forward, the voluntary sector establishment may encourage the Conservative Party to embrace the SJPG’s proposals that would make the current funding regime fairer whilst discouraging the measures that would democratise funding. The latter would in time entail significant change in the way the sector operates. However rather than representing a threat to the sector, their implementation would greatly enhance its strength, diversity and innovation – and, ultimately, its ability to provide second chances to the most vulnerable. I am confident that through Shadow Charities Minister Greg Clark the Conservative Party will be able to develop a blueprint for a more effective voluntary sector that reassures as well as challenges. And at the next General Election, the Conservative Party’s policies to strengthen the voluntary sector will be a key element in a radical and credible platform to deliver social justice to the vulnerable communities most failed by Gordon Brown.