What Theresa May has in store for the Third Sector

5 May 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 5 May 2017

Are we about to see compassionate Conservatives?

Direct Rule in Northern Ireland is a distinct possibility. Scope examines Theresa May’s commitments to Civic Society, and asks what that might mean for the Third Sector. 

The Conservative Manifesto is expected to be published next week. To date only two clues have emerged: foreign aid will not be cut and there will be a cap on energy bills.

These are both significant: there have been loud calls from the Tory right and some sections of the media for aid to be diverted into domestic causes. The cap on energy bills was a key Labour pledge in the last election. They were derided by May’s predecessor David Cameron as evidence that David Milliband “wanted to live in a Marxist universe.”

The energy bills cap is evidence that under May the Tories will shift away from the neo-liberalism that has been a hallmark of the Conservatives since the days of Margaret Thatcher. She believes that government can and should intervene in the workings of the economy.

She expanded on this theme when giving a speech to the Charity Commission earlier this year. It was scarcely reported on at the time. Political reportage for many months has been utterly dominated by Brexit. Her government has helpfully created a video of the speech which you can access here.


In it she sketched out what she saw as the key challenges for civic society:

“We live in a country where if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you’re likely to be paid less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.”

This is not classic Conservative rhetoric.

She went further, talking about the struggles of “ordinary working people” signalling a concern for what has been described as the “JAMS” people who are just about managing. Coincidentally Northern Ireland has a higher proportion of this demographic than any other part of the UK.

She then defined the resentment that many feel in society, and the increasing disconnection between the centres of wealth and power and the rest of the population:

“When you see others prospering while you are not; when you try to raise your concerns but they fall on deaf ears; when you feel your very identity – all that you hold dear – is under threat, resentments grow, and the divisions that we see around us – between a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation; between the wealth of London and the rest of the country; between the rich, the successful and the powerful, and their fellow citizens – become entrenched.”

She paints a picture of a country which is not at ease with itself, riven with tensions and resentments and a burning sense of injustice and powerlessness amongst many.

May went on to attack the “cult of individualism”, arguing in a passage that would have Thatcher turning in her grave, that there is more to life than self-interest and that we have mutual responsibilities to others in our communities.

Yet on actual practical measures to tackle these issues she had very little to say. She said she had a plan but would reveal it on the “next few weeks”.

There were hints about affordable housing, she spoke about better schooling (by which she means grammar schools) and referenced the efforts the government is making to provide social finance.

There was a long passage on specific measures to tackle mental ill health and a passage which questioned the virtues of the policies favoured by her predecessor: promoting liberalism and globalisation, saying that for too many people they were forces that were “something to be concerned, not thrilled about. “

The problem we face when attempting to analyse the implications of this is that to date May has been very strong on rhetoric, but despite nine months in office there is very little to show for it in concrete policy terms. Will she be a radical reformer who allies with civic society to address social injustice? Will she curb the excesses of the city, waging war on tax dodgers and curbing excessive pay? Or is she courting social liberals in order to win an election?

The manifesto should hold more clues.

Aside from that we are left sifting through sectorally-relevant policies being pursued by her government during its nine months in office.

We can rule out any suggestion that May’s belief in state intervention will lead to an increase in public spending. She has committed herself to “fiscal rectitude” so any reform is likely to come from further reorganisation and moving monies around rather than increasing the pot.

One initiative however does seem particularly interesting. It involves supporting what are sometimes called “mission-led” businesses. These are for-profit organisations that see themselves as having a social purpose and seek to remedy societal problems. In other words they regard themselves as having a wider remit than generating wealth for shareholders.

The government commissioned an independent report into these businesses in December last year which is currently under consideration. Its recommendations included:

  • UK corporates investing £1bn in corporate social impact investment funds, targeting businesses that achieve financial growth and a measurable social impact.
  • Mainstream businesses establishing talent partnerships to help mission-led start-ups become mission-led scale-ups.
  • Bringing the business and social sectors together on a national scale to address longstanding social challenges for UK families.
  • Encouraging businesses to set out their social purposes alongside their obligations to shareholders.

The notion that business has a responsibility to wider society, not just its shareholders resonates with May’s stated views about business, the wealthy and the gulf between rich and poor.

It also revives and redefines the old 19th Century tradition of industrial philanthropy and is likely to find favour with a vicar’s daughter who is very open about her faith.

As to the extent to which May will promote social cohesion, that is very hard to say. Even if she means every word she says and is determined to act, it is hard to see how the necessary time and attention will be devoted to social issues, when the top of every in tray in every government department will be dominated by matters relating to Brexit.

May’s spirit to address social problems may be willing. The flesh may turn out to be weak.



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