Stronger Charities for a Stronger Society (Charities Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:44 pm on 16th January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench 4:44 pm, 16th January 2018

My Lords, it was a great privilege to serve on the Select Committee under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley.

Charities have always played a key role in our society, and in recent years an increasingly crucial one. One way in which their role has expanded enormously, of course, is in the work they now undertake as service providers. A number of our recommendations—14 to 21—address this. The noble Lord, Lord Bichard, drew attention to the difficulties that the current process causes for many contracts.

I draw attention to recommendation 20, which says:

“Charities cannot operate unless their core costs are met”.

The Government in their response agreed that the sustainability of delivery organisations was an important factor but went on to say:

“Securing best value for taxpayers’ money will also continue to be a key factor”.

Of course, it should be a factor but it is very disappointing that the Government have not been more explicit about the need for core costs to be met. Without those core costs being met, a charity will fail in the end, and everyone will be the loser. It is not an excessively complex task to work out on any particular contract what percentage should be added to the direct service costs to cover the administration which makes the continuing existence of the charity possible. After all, charities themselves do such sums when they raise money. They will often tell the public how much they spend on administration and publicity and how much goes directly to their clients. They often pride themselves on the low percentage that they spend on administration and the large percentage that goes to the cause in question. Therefore, I would like a much more definite commitment from the Government that realistic core costs will indeed be included in the contract for delivery. A number of noble Lords emphasised this, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who did so eloquently.

Recommendation 28 says:

“Funders need to be more receptive to requests for resources for volunteer managers and co-ordinators, especially where charities are able to demonstrate a … potential volunteer base”.

The Select Committee had this drawn very much to its attention on our very enlightening visit to Sheffield, where we spoke to members of the council who told us about the difficulties they faced given the 50% cut in their budget: for example, libraries having to be staffed significantly by volunteers. If I remember correctly, they said that they had two paid managers for their volunteers. Volunteers, by definition, are cost-free. However to be effective on a large scale, they need effective management from somebody who is most likely in paid employment.

A number of recommendations are addressed to the Charity Commission, and some good points have been made in relation to that. However, the point has not been made that when the Charity Commission consults the sector on how these extra costs might be raised and deployed, it is very important that it consults with various infrastructure bodies, as we were surprised at the number of infrastructure bodies that already exist to help charities in one way or another. It is obviously very important that the work they do is not simply replicated by the Charity Commission. There needs to be good, strong consultation in this regard.

My final area of concern is picked up in Recommendation 37, which states:

“We believe that Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts’ proposals for a review of the rules set out in the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 are eminently sensible”.

I stress “eminently sensible”. It was good to hear the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, speak about that this afternoon. It was therefore particularly disappointing that the Government responded that they would not bring forward legislation to implement his recommendations on the grounds that:

“The legislative programme for this session is already at full capacity”.

I briefly remind the House what lies behind the Hodgson report. In 2012, the Government brought forward a hasty and ill thought-out piece of legislation—Part 2 of the lobbying Act—concerned with what third-party groups could do by way of campaigning during elections. I declare an interest as chair of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, which represents a whole range of charitable and campaigning bodies of very varying political views and persuasions. They were and are still concerned about the effect of what is now the 2014 Act. Your Lordships managed to get some changes to the Act as it passed through this House, not least getting a recommendation that the Act be reviewed. That review has now taken place, and the result is the Hodgson report.

It is important to remind ourselves that campaigning by voluntary groups in our history has brought about most progressive changes, from the abolition of slavery to our present period. In our own time, charities of one kind or another are usually at the front line of meeting human need and are most acutely sensitive to how government policy impacts upon the people they serve. It is therefore crucial that they be allowed to make their views known, including during election periods.

Most of the recommendations in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, could be implemented without difficulty. As our report says, they are “eminently sensible”. There is one particularly complex area, about which the noble Lord spoke, and I hope that the Government will listen to what he said. It is a genuinely complex area which has teased philosophers of mind and philosophers of law for hundreds of years. But what he suggested today would make possible a meeting of minds on that recommendation, and I very much hope that, in the not too distant future, a parliamentary Session will be able to implement those recommendations. The charity sector is disappointed by the Government’s negative response to that excellent report.