Sticking to the knitting: the real threat to charities

13 Mar 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 7 Jul 2015

Charities Knitting Machine Cartoon
Charities Knitting Machine Cartoon

Scope examines how government is undermining the independence of charities.

When former charities minister, the improbably named Brooks Newmark, told charities they should “stick to their knitting” he was starting a debate he was unable to continue, because within days he had been sacked after sending naked pictures of himself to a reporter posing as a Tory activist.

It’s a pity the matter ended there because this is an issue of critical importance to the community and voluntary sector.

Scope cannot pretend to have any great insight into Mr Newmark’s mind, nor given subsequent events would we want to. However on one level it is not too difficult to see where he is coming from.

The right wing Spectator magazine has claimed that British charities are “stuffed to the gunwales with Labour placemen” and a recent Huffington Post article names names.

Of course there is nothing wrong with appointing former politicians and political spin doctors to senior positions in charities, particularly if they have the requisite skill sets to do a good job. The implication of critics seems to be that charity executives are somehow exploiting their positions in order to further their own party political interests.

And they go further than that arguing that charities should concentrate on doing “good work for the needy” rather than campaigning for policy changes that would remove that need.

The ill-conceived Transparency of Lobbying Act seems to have been one component in an attempt to enforce that.

Under all this is a battle for the future of the Voluntary and Community sector which has been unnoticed by the public and seldom debated anywhere.

Scope was therefore delighted to see the issue raised at the Imagine Belfast Festival at the instigation of the Building Change Trust.

What has really been going on is that across the UK charities have become increasingly dependent on government funding for their survival. Over and above that much of that money comes in the form of contracts to deliver services as opposed to grants.

Losing independence

This has a number of consequences. Charities are tending to lose their independence as they become used to deliver government objectives, often in competition both with each other and public sector organisations that would previously have carried out this work.

This has important implications. In tough times much of the effort of many organisations is channelled into securing their own existence and such a heavy dependence on public funds is bound to lead to a degree of self-censorship. It can also lead to charities competing and lobbying against each other for a slice of an ever diminishing cake with the interests of the clients and communities ultimately being helped getting lost.

The name of the game here is “value for money” which can sometimes involve a race to the bottom as public sector bodies look to lower costs and put cheapness ahead of quality when evaluating tenders.

Many charities are now involved in service delivery and have such a dependency on government that the loss of a few contracts can have devastating, even terminal consequences.

This in turn threatens civic society. The voluntary sector provides a vital role in society because it provides an independent voice for the multiplicity of causes it collectively supports. Often these causes involve vulnerable people who are not in a position to speak out for themselves.

This is a dilemma that highlights the real issue at stake. Charities exist to support good causes and that support means advocacy not just “good work”. Newmark therefore was posing the wrong question, which should be how do you preserve the independence of the sector at a time when it has become so heavily dependent on government money?

Political vetting

And let’s not forget one important thing: in Northern Ireland the sector has recent memories of government overtly suppressing charitable organisations of which it did not approve.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Northern Ireland Office implemented political vetting of some groups. This led to a crèche at Conway Mill being targeted and culminated in the Irish language group Glor nGael having its funding removed.

This was not about cause related lobbying, but more to do with NIO concerns about “paramilitary links” yet in none of these cases was any evidence produced to justify why funding had been stopped.

Times have changed in Northern Ireland but the vetting cases do demonstrate the vulnerability of many charities: they depend so heavily on public funding that their very existence relies upon it.

So, yes, let’s have this debate, but this time frame it properly. A strong and independent voluntary sector needs to be free to speak up for causes without fear of censor or financial punishment. It needs to have a collective voice on issues that matter and put aside rivalries over funding and speak more to the issues

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