The Panel’s fourth and final report, An Independent Mission: the voluntary sector in 2015, sets out the serious and growing challenges facing the independence of the sector and the action that needs to be taken to address them. The Panel’s specific concerns include the impact of the Lobbying Act on charity campaigning; ‘gagging clauses’ in public service contracts; new restrictions on the ability of voluntary organisations to use the courts to overturn poor Government decisions; truncated government consultations; commissioning and procurement for public services that does not support independence and diversity in the voluntary sector; and concerns about the effectiveness of the Charity Commission and the Compact in upholding the sector’s independence.
The report concludes that the causes of these specific threats are deep-seated. Under successive governments, the voluntary sector has increasingly been seen as a contractual arm of the state, without an independent mission or voice, interchangeable with the private sector. The Panel also expresses its concerns about an increasingly defensive attitude toward the campaigning voice of charities from politicians, perhaps because the attraction of traditional political parties is diminishing and more people are turning to the voluntary sector to express their views.
The Panel calls for ‘a new settlement’ between the Government and the voluntary sector, underpinned by a far deeper understanding from the state about why the independence of the sector enables it to make a distinctive and important contribution to society. It also calls for leadership from the voluntary sector and announces that the Baring Foundation is now fundraising to establish a Commission on the future of the voluntary sector. The report says there are many fundamental issues for it to consider, including a new model for working with the public sector and for funding and regulation that can better support the sector’s independence.
An Independent Mission also calls for immediate, practical steps to be taken by the next Government:
- Remove constraints on independence of voice and protect the legitimate right of voluntary organisations to campaign, repealing the Lobbying Act, reversing changes to judicial review and expert interventions and removing ‘gagging clauses.’
- Establish formal mechanisms for dialogue and collaboration between government and the voluntary sector, at national and local level.
- Reform commissioning and procurement to get the best out of the voluntary sector and to recognise the value it creates. We appreciate some steps have been taken by the current Government but they are not of the fundamental scale required. We recommend the voluntary sector be involved, including in drawing up new contracts.
- Provide targeted financial support to the voluntary sector, particularly for smaller organisations working with disadvantaged group, to support it to deliver common social goals. Vital social infrastructure is at risk, particularly for vulnerable communities and groups, often at local level.
- Introduce stronger support to protect independence, including a Compact with teeth, enforced by an independent body reporting to Parliament, and ensure that the Charity Commission is politically independent with a clear role to protect the independence of the sector, including its right to campaign.
Here’s what the Chair of the Panel, Sir Roger Singleton CBE, says about it in the Guardian. For other news coverage, visit out news page.