Home >> News >> Comment from the Chief Executive

Comment from the Chief Executive

Mon 18 Sep 2017

In an exclusive interview this week, Third Sector magazine spoke to the former Minister for Civil Society of three years, Rob Wilson, who lost his seat at the general election in June. It was a fascinating, but regrettably patronising piece, which I tweeted, so I thought I’d better explore why I concluded so and how I think this epitomises the current (regrettable) attitude of central government to our sector.

According to Wilson ‘The charity sector is known as the third sector, and the truth is that is a fair reflection of where it sits in the political pecking order.‘ He goes on to say that he tried to change this, with some success (evidence?) and that the answer is for the sector to get closer to government policy and to focus on raising money. Wilson also bizarrely admits relief at the downgrade of the sector brief from Cabinet Office into the Department for Culture, as it stopped No. 10 interference over the likes of Kids Company – perhaps we should be the 4th sector?

I’m afraid this is truly indicative of the current governments take on our sector, that we are here primarily to bring investment that government can’t leverage on its own and to deliver either directly on public services or increasingly to fill gaps left by the state’s exit. 

He goes on to emphasise our group think mentality, apparently affirmed by those he has met from the sector, who also confirmed how inward looking we are. Then he punches in with the ‘blindingly obvious’ priority for our sector – the dosh, we must develop new income streams. Apart from the fact that a focus on cash would be the ultimate in inward looking self-preserving group think, he totally misses the point that our sector is, has always been, and will always be, about supporting and enabling those who find themselves vulnerable, and tackling the social, economic and environmental factors that bear upon them mostly weightily. A huge proportion of our sector tackles these problems with little or no actual cash, but a mass of passion, drive, commitment and in fact, time. Unfortunately this frequently means standing up against government policy.

Wilson elaborates on our need to repair our reputation and to reform regulation – yet more navel gazing. In practice we spend far too little time on our largely unfairly damaged reputation as a sector – partly because it is hard for tens of thousands of small and medium charities to fix something that was caused by a handful of large corporate charities, but mostly because we’d rather spend time and efforts on our beneficiaries than our own PR. Wlson is right that trust has been eroded, but central government have poured petrol on that fire for the past few years with the lobbying act, the disproportionate reaction of fundraising regulation, slashing charity commission resources, and a general moral superiority over pay and other charity practice, which whilst necessary, was both hypocritical and ultimately ineffective – the big corporate charities have not changed much.

His final advice – get closer to the Conservative Party and government – exemplified by his earlier recommendation to back fracking as it could be lucrative for us. We must rightly be in close dialogue with all and any governments, and in essence that was his job. But we must never get too close to any government, Conservative, Labour or other – our job is to challenge the powerful wherever they make decisions that impact adversely on the least powerful – challenge practically, challenge policy and if necessary to challenge politically.

The new Minister (or under-secretary of State for Sport and Civil Society, as I think they are these days), Tracey Crouch MP has a stronger CV for the brief, and has not been quick to rush into policy announcements – let’s hope she is taking stock, talking to our sector (if not to me) and planning a joint approach that has been sadly AWOL over the last three years. We would welcome a new relationship where you, at least, believe we are not third in the pecking order.