Independence in mind

independence reportThe Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector launched their fourth and final report yesterday. The launch event revealed a lot of really interesting - and really opposing - opinions on the value of an independent sector, and the degree to which this is being threatened by things like the Lobbying Act and ‘gagging clauses’ in contracts.

Some of the coverage of the event in sector press focused on the Panel’s recommendations for a Compact with ‘teeth’.

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about working on the Compact, it’s that one of its key strengths is that it is a mutually beneficial, voluntary agreement.

As NCVO's Sir Stuart Etherington said at today’s event, giving it ‘teeth’ would change the nature of the Compact. He also commented that relationships between the government and the voluntary sector would worsen if government felt that the Compact was a stick the sector could use to hit them with.

Bert Massie, former commissioner for the Compact, spoke at the event as well, and outlined how the Independence Panel had looked at just two aspects of the Compact: the principles relating to the sector’s right to campaign, and on timescales for consultation with the sector.

As Massie pointed out, the recent NAO report into Compact implementation across government found that 80% of government consultations lasted less than 12 weeks.

What’s clear is that extended periods for consultation are needed. What isn’t going to help is making this process more bureaucratic: placing burdens on government officials to force them to consult for longer won’t encourage better, more meaningful engagement with the sector. And it won’t lead to stronger partnerships between the sectors.

We must strike a balance between a voluntary sector whose voice is heard, listened to and valued, and a government that understands the benefits for them in listening. Massie made the point that government is in a rush, but that fast laws are bad laws. Taking the time to listen to the needs of voluntary organisations and their service users is going to ensure that policies and services meet the needs of communities, saving the government money in the long run.

The principle of the national Compact that states that government should uphold charities’ right to campaign is not being adhered to. That said, I’m dubious that enshrining this in a binding document ‘with teeth’ would help. What’s needed is a greater understanding among government of the value of campaigning, and positive dialogue around the benefits of a strong, independent voluntary sector.

Massie made an excellent point about the need to think back and focus on some of the great changes that have come about for society as a direct result of charity campaigning: from speed limits to child welfare to accessible buildings. Massey pointed out that campaigns on issues like these were not party political: it took decades to bring about change. But the changes that they eventually brought about are now so embedded in our way of life that we cannot possibly imagine a society without them.

There are some great examples of how charities' campaigns have transformed health and social care in this recent blog by Paul Streets from the Lloyds Bank Foundation, who was also at the event yesterday.

Greater awareness and understanding of the Compact, and the value of the sector’s independence would have a far more lasting and positive impact than a Compact with ‘teeth’. Making such a thing binding not only changes its nature as a voluntary agreement, but would be nigh on impossible to enforce.

The Compact is in a unique position of being supported by all of the major political parties.

The next government – whoever that may be – should commit to renewing and reinvigorating the national Compact, based on extensive consultation with the voluntary sector.

 - Kelly Ventress, Communications and Policy Senior Officer, Compact Voice

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