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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:08 pm on 16th January 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Prosser Baroness Prosser Labour 5:08 pm, 16th January 2018

My Lords, first, I draw the attention of the House to my interests as listed in the register. Secondly, I thank my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley for her introduction to the report and congratulate her and her fellow committee members on an excellent and thorough report. Thirdly, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, to her place back on the Front Bench.

I can see that there is respect across the House for the work of the charity sector. It is an integral part of the framework of our society, able to move into action while national and local bureaucracies start by establishing a committee to help them think about it. My support for the voluntary sector may of course be coloured by my having spent seven very happy years working in a law centre in the London Borough of Southwark. We worked jointly with other local organisations such as the CAB, housing advice groups, tenants’ and residents’ organisations and so on. We knew each other and we knew the neighbourhood and that was important because it helped us to make sound judgments.

That was all quite a long time ago. Since then, life has become much more complicated and the range of services provided by the third sector wider and more varied. The health and social care sector is of course at the heart of this changing scene—all the more need then for a secure, well-supported sector capable of employing professional and skilled staff ready to deliver to the myriad concerns confronted by today’s society.

What do charities big and small most need to be able to function effectively, to listen and act for the people or groups of people they seek to serve, to work proactively and professionally, to bring concerns to a wider audience and to promote suggested solutions for the way forward? The committee’s report makes recommendations for a number of those areas. There are two main elements that have been identified as essential to the long-term health of the charitable sector—sufficient resources and stability are each essential to success. Reliability of core costs is essential. My noble friend Lord Rooker has already made that point, as have other noble Lords.

The Government’s mantra regarding reduction of back-office costs is seriously misplaced. Of course, no one should tolerate waste, but this discussion is conducted as though back-office costs were a luxury and bore no relation to the work of an organisation overall. Charities need secure core costs. Front-line staff cannot do their jobs effectively or efficiently without the day-to-day work of administrative and support staff. The irony of the Government’s argument does not escape me when I meet with Ministers who are always accompanied by a phalanx of civil servants and advisers—back-room staff writ large.

It is also a penny-wise and pound-foolish argument. I understand that HMRC no longer tolerates legally qualified staff doing their own photocopying because it understands the argument that is not sensible to pay a lawyer’s salary for time spent doing an admin job that could and should be done by a person on the appropriate grade.

An organisation with secure finances is also more likely to be a stable organisation, enabling it to think longer term. Most charities have a keen awareness of the long-term nature of their work. Building knowledge and trust does not happen quickly. The experience of staff and of course of trustees is key and central to reaching a professional position commanding respect from their particular communities of interest. Stable finances, including longer-term contracts and the long-term commitment of staff and trustees, would all make charitable and third sector organisations capable of delivering outcomes valuable to the community and helpful to government.

The committee’s report also highlights the need for better consultation from the Government when introducing new or different policy proposals. The anti-advocacy proposals have caused much upset and have been mentioned many times this afternoon in this debate. They have led many organisations to feel genuinely threatened. The review of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, was welcomed and the Government should recognise that their own proposals, described by many as a gagging clause, were seen as deeply offensive. The work of many charities is about campaigning for change and for the influence of policymakers. To try to curtail that legitimate function borders on the anti-democratic. The letter to the then Secretary of State in August last year about this matter was supported by more than 120 charities ranging over the whole spectrum.

Much has already been said about the recommendations of the report and I will not repeat those points now, but there are two other areas that I believe must be hammered home. First, what are the Government proposing to do to ensure security of funding for those organisations currently funded in whole or in part by the European Union? Personally, I have all my fingers and toes crossed that we never leave the EU, but we must be prepared. It is estimated that £200 million will be lost to the sector. The Labour Benches in the other place have called for a full DCMS-led assessment of the impact that Brexit will have on funding, on the workforce and on service demand. Is the Minister prepared to commit the Government to conducting such an assessment and how will that fit into the proposed civil society strategy?

Finally, perhaps I may repeat a point made by my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley. What is the situation with regard to the appointment of a new chair of the Charity Commission? If I may say so in the confines of this Chamber, the Government are not building themselves a fine reputation with regard to public appointments, which leaves those of us concerned about such matters feeling slightly anxious when appointments are delayed. I am sure that the House would be keen to be assured that matters are under control and that an announcement of the new chair for the commission will be made imminently.