Civil Society and Lobbying - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:58 pm on 8th September 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Pitkeathley Baroness Pitkeathley Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords), Chair, Select Committee on Charities, Chair, Select Committee on Charities 1:58 pm, 8th September 2016

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank my noble friend for bringing forward this debate today and declare my interests as set out in the register. I am speaking today in my capacity as chair of the recently established Select Committee on Charities. I also thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes for his kind remarks—I will pay him later. The committee was established in June of this year to,

“consider issues related to sustaining the charity sector, and the challenges of charity governance”.

This is a broad remit, but one we will endeavour to tackle.

The charitable sector in this country has a long and proud history, as your Lordships know only too well. However, it is clear to me and my committee—and, indeed, I think to your Lordships’ House as a whole—that the sector is under pressure. In fact, in 40-plus years of working in and with the sector, I have never known it under such pressure. I know that none of this will be news to any of your Lordships, but it is worth reflecting on those pressures.

The scandals of recent years mean that the sector is under intense scrutiny. The impact of that scrutiny has been for the general public to start thinking more carefully about where its money is going. There is no doubt that there has been a decline in levels of trust in the sector, and though recent research suggests that trust is on the rise again, the sector can never be complacent. We know that the worst stories do not represent the best of the sector, but, equally, we know there is work to be done about regulation.

Of course, anyone who has anything to do with the charitable sector cannot fail to be aware of the huge financial pressures it faces. We are a very long way from the heady days of the early 2000s, when we all felt flush, when government money was being dished out to all sorts of strategic partners, to many different initiatives, and when local authorities were keen to go into partnership to deliver innovative schemes for tackling deprivation. We even had an advisory body in what was then called the Office of the Third Sector, now called the OCS, which I had the honour to chair. What is more familiar now is the winding up of charities, their disappearance rather than their expansion and innovation. At the same time, the demand for charitable services has increased with rising levels of poverty and deprivation and the results of austerity, as noble Lords have said.

To add to these pressures, there is the current political and economic uncertainty in light of Brexit. Your guess is as good as mine on what will happen next, but even the risk of instability is a challenge for the sector. We know that, as the country adapts to a post-Brexit landscape, the charity sector will be expected to adapt and evolve. I have every confidence that it will do so because the sector’s record of adaptation and initiative is well documented, but the road ahead may be hard.

We also have the new Act. I hope that the Charity Commission powers will be used cautiously and proportionately. The powers to make social investments are also an important step forward for charities, and I hope they will prove to be of benefit—I should declare my interest as chair of the Big Society Trust, which is set up to keep the Big Society Capital true to its mission of supporting the social sector. We should not, however, be deluded into thinking that social investment is a panacea for the money problems of the charitable sector. It is an important element but an element only.

Noble Lords know that the sector has had its share of both positive and negative parliamentary attention in recent years, but there was an appetite to look more widely at the challenges faced by the sector and how it can be most effectively supported in its important work. I acknowledge the hard work of the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, in bringing this to the attention of the Liaison Committee and for its decision to set up the ad hoc committee. The committee wants to help and support the sector and for this to be a positive engagement exercise which truly reflects the problems for everyone working with charities.

I have described the pressures, but part of what the committee wants to understand is the opportunities, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has said, that exist for charities to thrive. We are clear as a committee that what must not be allowed to happen is that the excellent and essential work of so many charities should be blemished by the actions of a small minority. If we encounter complacency and poor practice, we will of course challenge them, but we are seeking to celebrate success and innovation more than anything else.

I am delighted to say that we have received more than 150 submissions to our call for evidence, the deadline for which was last Monday—but of course we are being flexible about that. Of those submissions, 112 were from charities themselves, and, of those, 28% were from charities with a turnover of less than £1 million. I think it is particularly important for the members of my committee to hear the voices of small and medium-sized charities. My committee and I have a busy few months ahead and some big questions to consider. We are up to the challenge and committed to making sure that the right policies and support systems are in place for the sector to continue to be such a valuable part of our society.

I turn now to the issue of lobbying. It is inevitable, when we think about charities, that we tend to focus on the services they provide, because that is what we are most familiar with. I am delighted that the title of our debate today includes the issue of lobbying activity because, to my mind, this lobbying, this voice, this representative function is one of the most important functions which charities perform.

I was proud to be, for more than 10 years, the CEO of Carers UK, whose sole function was to advocate on behalf of carers and to bring to the attention of government, the media and the general public the contributions made by carers and to ensure that they receive support in the important but stressful role they play. When I first worked in this area, the very word “carer” was unknown—indeed, it was nearly always misspelled as “career”. Now carers are out of the closet, and that is almost entirely down to the work of carers’ organisations enabling carers to make their case and gain support. There is still not enough support, of course, so the work must go on. Therefore, anything which in any way restricts the ability of vulnerable groups to lobby or put their case must be resisted at all costs.

I have spoken on this issue all over the world. Our tradition of charities being funded by Government to lobby Government is the envy of the world. It is the envy of many countries which are not so fortunate as the United Kingdom is to have that philosophy. I know many noble Lords feel as passionate about this as I do, and I hope the Minister will assure us that she does, too.