Debate: charity independence

should be wary of accepting funding and signing contracts with government for
fear their independence will be compromised
Robert Whelan is deputy director of
Civitas and author of Involuntary Action

Some time ago I was asked to speak at a gathering of voluntary
sector workers who wanted to discuss whether the independence of the sector is
threatened by political funding and control. I was shocked to hear some of the
stories of blatant arm-twisting by government departments that emerged.

was general agreement that one particular campaigning charity, working in
social welfare with a radical reputation, was in fact the government’s poodle.
The "radicalism" went just so far – as far, in fact, as the end of a
fairly short leash. Moderate criticism of the government would be tolerated.
Serious criticism, or criticism coming at a difficult time, such as the run-up
to an election, would result in a fierce tug on the leash.

only surprising thing about this is that anyone should be surprised.
Politicians do not allocate grants to provide unspecified support for good
causes. Any expenditure is to further the objectives of whatever party has a
majority in the House of Commons at the time. Nothing could be more convenient
than to buy up their own opposition. Politicians do it all the time – just look
at the honours list – and the voluntary sector is no exception. If you take
money from the state, you had better not bite the hand that feeds.

recent report from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the
Centre for Civil Society cited "several cases in the past year in which
voluntary organisations in receipt of government funding have expressed public
criticism of government and have been reproached and, indeed, warned by
officials that ministers might not regard this as consistent with their
contractual status." This process is predictable under any regime, but New
Labour’s reputation for control freakery makes it an absolute certainty.

voluntary sector has moved in recent years from denial of the problem to
recognition that it exists, coupled with a belief that nothing can be done, so
we may as well make the best of it. The next stage would be a constructive
disentanglement of the sector from the state.

the Arnold Goodman lecture earlier this year, the political scientist Lord
Dahrendorf observed that the government had taken over large parts of the
voluntary sector more easily than it had retaken control of Railtrack. So how
about an independent voluntary sector?

Relationships in the modern welfare state are mature enough to allow charities
to work with government without losing any independence
James Strachan is chief executive of
the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and board member of Save the
Children and the government’s community fund

bite the hand that feeds you" is the received wisdom among those pundits
who have never actually run a charity. We are told that, having become
"the junior partner in the welfare firm", charities providing
services under government contract have forfeited their right to campaign
against the government. What unsophisticated nonsense!

have moved on from the dichotomy of either private or public provision into the
mature welfare state. Of course the government has its own agenda and of course
there can be pitfalls but, for the determined, there are now huge opportunities
to increase the impact of their work.

you are to be a successful and independent service provider working for
government, then you need a voice that is loud and public enough to defend
yourself if disagreements arise. If you are a small charity, dependent on one
local authority contract, then it is perhaps unwise to criticise your paymaster
in the local press. This is not specific to the voluntary sector – it is about
power and human relationships.

to suggest that their association with government has neutered even the larger
charities is simply not the case. Moreover, the relationship has taken on new
forms, such as seconding senior staff to government departments to help create
policy or managing major development projects.

example, after a campaign to introduce digital hearing aids through the NHS,
the Royal National Institute for Deaf People now runs the NHS modernising
hearing aid services project in partnership with the Department of Health. This
does not prevent us campaigning to stop ministers procrastinating on rolling
out the project with media coverage and an early day motion in the House of
Commons. This pressure may not be welcome but it does command the attention of
most politicians.

addition, the knowledge we gain from working with government makes us more
effective campaigners. MPs voted RNID earlier this year the UK’s second most
effective campaigning charity. At the same time a third of our £45m annual
income will come from services paid for by government. The fact that many
charities are now simultaneously campaigners and service providers should be
seen as a source of great strength not inherent conflict.

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