Never has the phrase “a week is a long time in politics” seemed so apt with the fallout from the 2015 election, the surprise election of a majority Conservative government and the impact on the other parties (and their leaders) still dominating the airwaves, twitter and newsprint. Amidst a sea of insight and analysis here are three reflections on what this might mean for the voluntary sector and three suggestions for how we should respond:
A. Everything changes, everything stays the same: for all the speculation as to what a majority Conservative Government means for an EU referendum, the Human Rights Act, the union or even the BBC, the reality of David Cameron being re-elected means that the core issue for this Parliament will be the same as that of the last one – the public finances. The Conservatives plans to turn a deficit of £75bn this year into a surplus by 2018/19, alongside meeting the spending pledges made during the campaign, all mean that George Osborne’s emergency budget on 8th July will fire the starting gun for a very hard-fought Spending Review. Central to this will be how the Conservatives meet their objective of cutting a further £12bn from working-age welfare.
Alongside welfare, local government spending is likely to be in the eye of the storm and has already resulted in an unprecedented expression of concern from every single local authority leader in England and Wales. Given the huge cuts of the last five years and against the continuing pressures of an ageing population and other needs, it cannot be long before the very fabric of local government and services comes under extreme pressure – bringing the Barnet “graph of doom” very much to life. And of course given that the voluntary sector, particularly small and medium sized charities, primarily derives its public income from local government, any further reductions will leave many having to do more with a lot less.
B. Working with the new Government – personnel: many charities put a lot of work before the election into influencing the full range of Manifestos – in the expectation/hope of treasured objectives making it through negotiations and into a coalition agreement – but now only one matters. In the last Parliament many of us became adept at leveraging as far as we could the Lib Dems both publicly and particularly behind the scenes – but such channels are no longer available. One of David Cameron’s best contributions to the process of Government has been continuity of Ministers, as opposed to the high turnover of the Labour years – and indeed most of the Cabinet remains unchanged. That means, however, for those of us on the outside there is not the opportunity for fresh starts – Ministers have heard our arguments and formed their views. So if we are going to change minds on an issue now we (a) have to go direct to Conservative Ministers and (b) are going to need new and better evidence/approaches/arguments than we have tried to date. We should also expect further cuts to the Civil Service and greater change in the size and leadership of Quangos. But hopefully the stronger role backbench MPs created for themselves in the last Parliament, such as through the election of Select Committee Chairs, and the small size of the Government’s majority, should present some opportunities, if used well, to influence debate. And in relation to MPs it is good news that across the parties there is a slight increase in the number who have experience of having worked in the VCS as well as more women generally, and more from BME communities.
C. Policy on the Voluntary Sector specifically: the Conservative Manifesto did not say much about the VCS but what it did say focused on extending the current direction of travel: scaling up social impact bonds and payment by results, getting charities more involved in service delivery through “the Work Programme model” plus looking at integrating services between and within councils as per the Troubled families programme. Our old friend “the Big Society” still got a mention, alongside support for volunteering including through the interesting idea of a new entitlement for employees of large firms to have three days of volunteering. As a sector we should of course welcome this support for volunteering and voluntary action but also try to ensure it is linked to and not somehow seen as separate to supporting the organisational form of voluntary action – namely strong, vibrant voluntary organisations.
So how should the Voluntary Sector respond to the new Government? Clearly we should engage willingly and openly with any Government, always looking for opportunities and partnership. We should be focused and far sighted about those we exist to serve, but not cowed by fear or seeking favour to raise questions, concerns and challenges.
We should be focused and far sighted about those we exist to serve, but not cowed by fear or seeking favour to raise questions, concerns and challenges.
1. Ensure the voluntary sector makes clear its relevance across Government: with Rob Wilson confirmed in post as Minister for Civil Society there is continuity but as a sector we need to ensure that support for and policy around the voluntary sector breaks out of the OCS ghetto to become “in with the bricks” of how all of Government does business. That means firstly showing more clearly how we, day in day out, help the Government deliver its core objectives, whether that be getting people back to work, tackling domestic abuse or addiction, or improving health or educational attainment, and therefore arguing for the core public expenditure in these areas to work for, with and through the sector.
Secondly, putting the voluntary sector at the heart of the drive to improve efficiency and effectiveness, not as a cheaper alternative to public services – far from it – but because if we are ever to genuinely deliver more with less, Government needs to work with the voluntary sector around early, preventative and holistic interventions.
…if we are ever to genuinely deliver more with less, Government needs to work with the voluntary sector around early, preventative and holistic interventions.
Thirdly, we need to seize the opportunity of greater devolution to ensure that it works for communities and neighbourhoods as much as for nations and regions – for example that greater devolution to Greater Manchester provides the space for community groups to bring together health – physical, mental and public – with social care and wider interventions at local level, not that it replaces unaccountable rule from Whitehall with that from Manchester townhall.
Fourthly, having convinced the Government of our value we need to make the case for a stronger, broader set of tools that better allows the voluntary sector to deliver across these agendas, including real reform of commissioning – replacing the drive towards social investment, scale, competition and contracts, with transparency, collaboration, varied funding and grants, particularly to better support the small and specialist organisations. The elevation of Oliver Letwin to head the Cabinet Office may help with some of this, bringing together some sympathy for charities with the broader Government reform agenda.
As an independent funder we will look to play our own part, funding and supporting the bedrock of small and medium sized charities tackling disadvantage in communities across England and Wales, as well as championing them and bringing their issues, concerns and the contributions they can make onto the national agenda.
2. Think about our language and frames of reference: We as a sector and individual organisations are clearly in the business of solutions to society’s ills but we must make sure that our public pronouncements also reflect that, positively proposing where/how we can do more as well as highlighting wrongs. Whilst remaining effective campaigners we need to ensure we are talking not just to our own donors, members and supporters but also the wider public and full range of media (witness, for example, the Sun’s new partnership with Women’s Aid campaigning against the closing of women’s refuges), telling stories of hope and lives changed, bringing alive concepts such as “social value” and building new alliances with business and others. We also need to use language which backs up the arguments that we are making to Government, such by drawing the obvious comparisons between small and medium sized charities and SMEs – who this Government likes and understands – when arguing for reform of procurement.
3. Be bold, ambitious and define our own future: David Cameron launched his new Government from the steps of Downing Street by talking about “one nation”. We should ensure that governing as “one nation” is not just around bringing the UK together but is as much about the old Disraeli sense of reducing social division and supporting the poor and vulnerable with a vibrant and vocal civil society making change happen. But we as a sector must get on the front foot and shape our own role in building “one nation”, not wait for it to be defined for us by politicians or bureaucrats.
…we as a sector must get on the front foot and shape our own role in building “one nation”, not wait for it to be defined for us by politicians or bureaucrats
At times over the last five years it has seemed like parts of the VCS were hanging on until a more left-leaning Government and/or the “taps were turned on again”. The taps will remain nearly dry for many years to come so we must rethink the relationship with the state and be architects of our own futures. Across the country homelessness and domestic abuse charities, for example, came into being precisely because the state was failing to care and people of goodwill came together to do something about it and still today they house, support and empower thousands of people, not because Government told, paid or contracted them to but because it is right. And if we look at some of the greatest changes in public policy and broader debate that were secured over the last Parliament –from the adoption of the 0.7% aid target, equal marriage, greater support for private renters or the living wage – then the voluntary sector, our voice, passion, evidence and arguments were at the heart, proving that changing policy is indeed a core part of “the knitting”.
The country has spoken and a new Government is getting to work. In turn we need a vibrant, bold, confident voluntary sector, vocal on behalf of the voiceless, fearless in identifying folly and failure, resolute in revealing solutions and confident in fulfilling our missions on behalf of those we exist to serve and at the heart of the nation at large.
Duncan Shrubsole is Director of Policy, Partnerships and Communications for Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales. You can read more about Duncan on our website or follow him on Twitter: @duncanshrubsole