Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Attacks on the independence of the voluntary sector and civil society

" We are on a slippery slope, where it is becoming increasingly common to hear the view that voluntary organisations should deliver services but not challenge the status quo, especially if they receive government funding. We are already seeing a ‘chilling effect,’ with increasing evidence of self- censorship by voluntary organisations"
Roger Singleton, Chair of the Independence Panel for the UK Voluntary Sector

 The Panel for the Independence of the UK Voluntary sector has just released its 2014 report titled Independence Undervalued: The Voluntary Sector in 2014,  and the picture it paints is despairingly familiar to the situation in Australia:
 "The voluntary sector is losing its ability to protect the most vulnerable in society as a result of government attacks on its campaigning activities, lack of consultation over policy changes, and funding arrangements that put the future of an independent sector at risk"
In its media release the Panel:
  • calls on the British Prime Minister David Cameron to take action to stop weakening the independence of the sector and to rebuild trust.  
  •  calls on voluntary sector leaders to take a stand to preserve the sector’s independence, which it says is vital to a healthy and compassionate democracy and the reason why so many people lend their support to charities and trust their services.
  •  documents numerous instances of a serious and growing threat from the government to Britain’s long tradition of independent voluntary action including:
  • Growing criticism by some politicians, including the Secretary of State for Justice, of charities’ role as voices of communities.  There is an increasingly commonly expressed view that charities should simply deliver services and not speak out against injustices – leading to voluntary organisations self-censoring because they are afraid of losing government work, appearing too political or because of gagging clauses in state contracts.
  • New and proposed restrictions to the ability of voluntary organisations to challenge government decisions in the courts on behalf of vulnerable individuals.
  • Restrictions to campaigning put forward in the Lobbying Bill without consultation and, despite subsequent changes, with continuing concerns about their impact.
  • Cuts in government consultation periods, leaving voluntary organisations too little time to respond to important questions, despite assurances this would change.
  • Damage to support in communities due to loss of public funding for local specialist voluntary organisations as public service contracts concentrate on economies of scale rather than social return.
  • Many state-sponsored charities subject to government interference, for example in appointment of board members.
  • A weak Charity Commission ill-equipped to maintain public confidence that charities are pursuing an independent mission that is furthering the public good and not state sponsored or driven by private gain; and lack of government compliance with a document signed by David Cameron to protect the independence of the sector, the Compact.
 Panel chair Sir Roger Singleton CBE said:
“An independent voluntary sector lies at the heart of a compassionate, democratic society, a role that has become especially important as engagement with mainstream politics declines and the state reduces in size. Yet we are on a ‘slippery slope’, in which the independence of voluntary organisations is increasingly undervalued and under threat and there are insufficient safeguards to protect an independent future for the sector. It is increasingly seen either as a delivery arm of the state or only legitimate where it provides services but does not speak out for wider social change.
 The full 64 page report of the Panel is here