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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 16th January 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector) 5:00 pm, 16th January 2018

My Lords, I declare an interest as the owner of a consultancy that works in the third sector and as an adviser to Charity Checkout. Last year, I was in conversation with a well-known political commentator and we were talking about an eagerly anticipated report from a sub-committee of your Lordships’ House. The commentator said, “I gather it is going to be somewhat critical of the Government, and this from a body in which the raising of an eyebrow is the equivalent elsewhere of throwing a chair through a window”. We did not throw any chairs out of windows in our committee, but we had some really robust discussions and we gave the people who came to talk to us quite a hard time occasionally. As a result of that, we came up with the report that we did.

If I had to say only one thing about the report, it would be this: in the wake of all the scandals and so on that people have talked about, we set ourselves a challenge to think strategically about the development of the charitable sector and the part that it has to play in our society. I think that, together in our collective wisdom, we did a very good job. We can contrast our way of working and what we have achieved with a debate that took place on 28 November in another place. I suggest that Members of this House look at that House of Commons debate on fundraising. It was astonishingly naive and misinformed, and it came to some wrong conclusions.

The noble Lord, Lord Grade, should know that there is another definition of partnership: if somebody is working on something in a closely allied part of the forest to you, you acknowledge that and let them get on with it. Because his work concentrates very much on fundraising regulations, we did not. However, since he has mentioned it, I will say this: a number of fundraising platforms that are working now have behind them substantial donations from philanthropists, and therefore they are not declaring the full costs of their operation in the way that other groups do. I hope that when the noble Lord’s committee looks at that, it makes sure not to draw false comparisons between different operating systems.

We did quite rightly hone in on the issue of governance, because that is what the sector needs to get right fundamentally. We were fortunate that the governance code came along as we were doing our work, but having such a code is not in itself an answer because governance in the charity sector is complicated—charities do not just have a profit and loss accountant to tell them what they are doing right; they have triple-line accounting. Therefore, as the report states, it is important that for many of the things we talked about there are sources of help and support to enable trustees to ensure that they are getting governance decisions right. We heard a lot about the involvement of young people as trustees, and I urge noble Lords to look at the evidence presented to us on that. During the summer, I conducted a governance review of a major national charity, and we have begun to look at ways in which we could develop things such as trustee apprenticeships, to enable young people to approach sitting on a board as a stepping stone towards further civic engagement.

We talked briefly about commissioning and the social value Act. We have this debate while watching the fallout from Carillion, which is only just beginning to unfold. I say to noble Lords: your local library may well have been run by Carillion and may not be there much longer. At a time of greater devolution of power and decision-making to local government, it is right to go back and look at the social value Act again. In many areas, local authority funding is still a large part of the local economy and we need to find ways for smaller organisations to be supported by those funds, to make sure that an area’s social fabric is sustainable.

I banged on all the way through our report about the need to support the charitable sector in digital development. It is crucial for companies and all of us throughout all areas of life to get on top of digital. Frankly, it is essential for charities but they do not have access to resources and they get precious little help from the big tech companies, some of which gave evidence to our report—I have to say, it was not very impressive. A woman called Zoe Amar has produced the Charity Digital Skills Report and it is clear that we need the support of government and funders, such as the Big Lottery Fund, to enable charities to make this key change in all that they do.

Charities thrive on being the ones that know what is happening first in society. However, a question we asked pretty well everyone who came to give us evidence was: if, in your local area, a charity showed up and Aldi showed up, which would you be more pleased to see and which do you think would know more about your community? The answer is not always the one that we would hope for. It is for the Government to step up on their answer to this and in supporting us to work better digitally and for the regulators to improve their digital involvement with charities. The Charity Commissioners for Northern Ireland and Scotland were very clear about the ways in which they are encouraging charities to be accountable via the web—via Facebook pages and so on. That is truly important if charities are to regain, as they wish to do, the support of the public.

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right about the role of religious charities and I encourage him to look at our discussions with the Church Urban Fund and the Islamic charity Penny Appeal. However, I say to him that unless and until those religious charities welcome everybody—and I mean everybody—in a locality, there will always be something of a tension and something of a reservation before some of us engage with them in the ways that we would wish to.

There is an awful lot in this report; it is for now and for the future. I am very glad that the infrastructure bodies have given it the welcome it deserves and I wish the Government and the Charity Commission would do likewise.