Sins of commission

No one can regard the report of the Commission on the Future of
the Voluntary Sector as radical. Nearly 400 years after charity was
defined in law it is necessary, but not surprising, to reiterate
that the definition needs an overhaul; it is helpful to offer an
inclusive definition.

The commission praises the National Lotteries Charity Board for
a job well done, and it but says no more than that ‘the evidence is
mixed’ of the claim of the commission’s sponsor, the National
Council for Voluntary Organisations, that the lottery has led to a
10 per cent (£90 million) fall in individual giving, and it
welcomes the monitoring exercise begun by the Home Office and the

Equally importantly, it fails to comment strongly on the
potential pitfalls of the lottery’s financial muscle. It is not
just the contract culture and government subventions which place in
danger the prized independence of the sector; the lottery could
well determine what voluntary agencies want to fund. Is it or the
sector to define innovation? So while the report’s perhaps central
and most useful recommendation is that there should be a
‘concordat’ to define the limitations placed on voluntary agencies,
this cannot be simply a matter of the sector, government
departments and the local authority associations collectively
sitting down to thrash that out. To ignore the lottery in this
would be to nullify much of what might be achieved. Nor could such
a ‘concordat’ be a mere expression of good intentions; it is
something that must be explicit, binding and understood in Barnet
and Bristol as well as in the Westminster rooms where it is drawn

There is an implication in the report, stemming perhaps from
British self-satisfaction about the sector, that all would be well
if only externally imposed problems could be resolved. But, for
example, the report makes no mention of the fact that charitable
trustees are largely, in day to day reality, accountable to no one
but themselves. (It discusses their legal liability, remuneration
and recruitment.) Yet this is a vital and worrying issue when the
state increasingly concedes so much to its voluntary partners.

In its detail the report has much to offer. In its wider view it
lacks a critical edge. Robert Whelan, in his new book, The
Corrosion of Charity (Institute of Economic Affairs), offers an
unashamed free marketeer’s critique and opines that ‘if the sector
has become so compromised by its involvement with the state as to
have lost its distinctive character, then it will not be able to
make an effective contribution to the debate [on alternatives to
the welfare state]’.

One does not have to accept the Whelan thesis wholesale to wish
that the commission had, at times, shown as much bite.

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