In a recent post, I responded to a talk from Andy Benson, of campaign group National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA), on the group’s opposition to the role of social enterprises in the privatisation of public services. The concerns raised by the NCIA are expanded on in this blog post from Dr Simon Duffy, director of The Centre for Welfare Reform.
According to Duffy: “currently in the UK, we are seeing the most significant direct attack on the rights and conditions of the poor and of disabled people. By 2015 spending on services for disabled children and adults will have been cut by 25% and the government hopes to cut benefits by £28 billion – about 28% of the current spending on benefits.“
But in response: “many of the organisations that one would expect to stand up to government, to point out the error of its ways, are silent.“
When considering for the reasons for this alleged silence from large charities and voluntary sector umbrella bodies, Duffy explains:
“There are many possible reasons:
- Some may be focusing on getting themselves ready for the storm – cutting posts, saving money.
- Some may be worried that they will lose lucrative central government funding if they become too challenging.
- Some may feel that they must be nice to government in order to negotiate with it – to get on the inside track and to reduce any harm it intends.
- Some may seek the honour of peerages, knighthoods, awards and all the other trappings of status that are so keenly distributed by our leaders.“
Many readers might regard the first three of these as perfectly reasonable courses of action if couched in less pejorative terms but, from Duffy’s point of view, it gets worse: ”There is one other very worrying reason why some organisations may be silent; and that is that some in the voluntary sector may even be seeking to benefit from these cuts, from the increased poverty and from the erosion of public services.”
Duffy concludes that: “We must become complicit or we must resist – there is no room left to claim that this has got nothing to do with us – that it is someone else’s problem.“
Fortunately he has a plan to make these organisations think twice about their policies of acquiescence: “One strategy, one that has been used in the past, is to make complicity more expensive for those who lack moral fortitude. For instance, it may be possible to name, shame or boycott organisations that are becoming directly or indirectly complicit with government.“
Clearly many of the organisations Duffy is criticising would offer a variation on the line offered by NAVCA here in response to recent claims from the NCIA over the ingratiating approach to government ministers: “We can all have our views about the Government but NAVCA has to work with whoever is in power to get support for the work of our members and the local VCS, so they can help their communities.”
But the views of Duffy and the NCIA seem to be partly backed up, albeit from a slightly different angle, by the Department of Communities and Local Government DCLG). As my Social Spider colleague, Mark Brown, reports on the One in Four blog, DCLG’s recently published 50 ways to save: Examples of sensible savings in local government includes the suggestion that local councils:
“Cease funding ‘sock puppets’ and ‘fake charities’: Many pressure groups – which do not deliver services or help the vulnerable – are now funded by state bodies. In turn, these nominally ‘independent’ groups lobby and call for more state regulation and more state funding.61 A 2009 survey found that £37 million a year was spent on taxpayer-funded lobbying and political campaigning across the public sector. Many of these causes may be worthy, but why should they be funded by taxpayers?“
As Mark notes, in making this suggestion, DCLG are channelling the ideas of Thatcherite think tank, The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which – understandably based on their political outlook – aren’t generally very keen on some bits of the public sector providing funding for organisations to that use that funding to campaign for the same (or different) bits of the public sector to spend more money.
Ultimately both the Duffy and the NCIA, and the IEA are, based on very different underlying agendas, demanding that campaigning role of charities, social enterprises and other voluntary sector groups should be definitively independent from government. Both perspectives seems to offer more questions than answers.
In terms of the Duffy/NCIA criticisms, the logical extension of their ‘complicity’ argument is that charities and social enterprises, and their representative bodies, should mount a collective campaign against the political principles of the government’s economic approach. It’s difficult to understand the basis on which they could credibly do that – while continuing to represent people (somewhere close to half the population) who may support their charitable or socially enterprising but also support the government economic policies.
Based on the DCLG/IEA suggestion, advocacy support for (to use an example) an individual person with mental health difficulties to explain their needs to public service providers would remain a public service but if ten people with mental health difficulties got together and formed a group to explain their needs public service providers, they’d be ‘sock puppets’. Private companies or rich individuals can, of course, form lobby groups and trade bodies to represent their needs to government and they do. Most council funded groups who lobby for the needs of their members are not in a position to fund their activities from their members’ own private wealth.
Clearly charities, social enterprises and the organisations that represent them face big challenges over the coming years. In many cases, their work involves both meeting social needs and explaining social needs that they themselves aren’t best placed to meet.
This is messy stuff and there is bound to be a broad spectrum of approaches but, one way or another, it’s vitally important that charities and social enterprises don’t become political campaign groups that exclude government supporters and also that citizens’ ability to campaign collectively for services to meet their needs is not determined purely by their personal wealth.