Policy, campaigns & research, Policy

New Civil Society Strategy – too many roadblocks on the way to success left untouched

There has been recently no lack of official reports that set out ideas on how to improve the life of charities. Earlier this year the consultation for a new Civil Society Strategy - shaping policy for civil society for ‘next 10 years to come’ – was announced. And people were a bit sceptical - would we get real policy change or just more ambitious announcements? DSC took part in the consultation and put forward a set of policy asks, that could make a huge difference for the sector. The strategy is now available. We had a closer look on what’s in it for the sector.

What about the money?

£90m will be invested into getting disadvantaged young people into employment. Another £55m will go into tackling financial exclusion. Government will be working together with the Big Lottery Fund. This is old news. A statement of intent on the financial inclusion programme was already released earlier this year. Funding for both initiatives will be taken from a pot of £330 million of dormant bank assets. Government already said back January that it will unlock these assets to fund programmes. So it’s actually not ‘new money’.

Silence on the next dormant assets tranche

The next tranche of the dormant assets scheme could include up to £2bn. A longstanding sector proposal suggests to use these assets to endow Community Foundations. It would give communities additional local grant-making capacity, which they desperately need. Investing £1bn this way could generate £40m per year for in perpetuity. No government money required, just policy commitment. The strategy was silent on this idea.

Philanthropy and giving – enough ambition?

To be fair, ideas on how to increase civic philanthropy and local grant-making capacity were put forward. Government will commit £750,000 until 2020 to develop place-based giving schemes. They will bring together local funders, philanthropists, businesses and civil society to tackle local needs. But it’s not a transformative sum. The scope of the intended impact is not clear. CAF, NPC and others plan to engage more wealthy individuals with philanthropy. They hope to generate an extra £2bn in giving with their new project. That’s ambition right there.

The strategy also mentions the Big Lottery Fund as ‘the largest funder of community activity in the UK’. The BLF could do a lot for local civic philanthropy with an additional £425m. Money taken  to pay for the 2012 Olympics which has still not been paid back. This refund could happen now, at no additional cost to the Exchequer. The strategy does not mention it either.

Lobbying Act – who really wants to hear what charities have to say?

Charities have a lot to say on how the austerity agenda disempowered people. The new strategy now talks about empowering people through the voices of charities. It also references research on the impact of the Lobbying Act by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, which DSC supported. SMK’s work showed that that there has been ‘chilling effect’ on civil society campaigning and advocacy. The Lobbying Act, in its current form, therefore represents a barrier to charities speaking up and empowering people. But the strategy says nothing about reforming the Lobbying Act. The widely accepted Lord Hodgson review on the reform of the Lobbying Act continues to sit dormant on the shelf.

Compact vs. ‘gagging clauses’ – a contradiction?

Government reaffirms its commitment to use anti-advocacy clauses in public service contracts and grant agreements. These so called ‘gagging clauses’ should prevent that public money is used for ‘political lobbying’. The sector has widely criticised these clauses as effectively preventing charities from speaking up. Anti-advocacy clauses have also recently popped up in the latest round of Tampon Tax funding for the women’s charities. It has side-lined small specialist women’s groups and charities and the Fund has been described as an example of how not to give money away. It is therefore remarkable that Victoria Atkins, MP says in the strategy that charities should speak up on behalf of vulnerable people to ensure that policies work for them using domestic violence as an example.

There is also a renewed commitment to the Compact (in its 2010 version). A breakthrough principle of the Compact was for government to ‘respect and uphold the independence of Civil Society Organisations to deliver their mission, including their right to campaign, regardless of any relationship, financial or otherwise, which may exist’. Upholding anti-advocacy clause in the light of this sounds like a contradiction. How will this be resolved?

Civil society as a vehicle for the Industrial Strategy?

There is an uncomfortable closeness of the document to the Industrial Strategy. Something which is also resembled in the government’s recent communication on the Shared Prosperity Fund, which is intended to replace funding from the European Structural Funds. Civil society can play a role in ensuring inclusive growth, but it is about more than boosting productivity. Charities care about human, social, and environmental rights. About wildlife, national parks and conservation projects. And many more issues that might not be directly connected to the aims of the Industrial Strategy.

Where to go from here? Put the money where your mouth is

Civil society faces big challenges which are caused by things that the strategy can barely touch upon: prolonged austerity and the prospect of a slowing down economy. The state retreats more and at the same time people have less own resources available to help themselves. Charities will face an even sharper rise in demand for services – stretching depleted resources even more.

The Civil Society Strategy is good start. But does the Office of Civil Society have enough ‘clout’ to implement it and get other departments on board? Do warm words actually come with more funding? If not, then the strategy is unlikely to have an impact. For now, the sector got its hopes up. There is no lack of support for the strategy. Now government must deliver on its promises and avoid further disappointment. We don’t need another ‘toothless paper tiger’.

Download the new Civil Society Strategy here.
Read DSC’s consultation submission here.