The light at the end of the tunnel – or an oncoming train?

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In August this year the government published its “Civil Society Strategy: Building a Future that Works for Everyone” following an extensive period of consultation in which RedbridgeCVS, along with the other CVSs across the country, took part. At the end of October, together with a number of other CVS Directors from London, I will be meeting the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Sport and Civil Society, Tracey Crouch MP, to discuss our responses to the Strategy. Your thoughts and suggestions for how we should respond would be very welcome.

After the evident failure of “Big Society” to bring about a golden age of connected communities where neighbours helped each other to thrive and socially-minded businesses provided nurturing support to their staff, customers and local communities, the government has only now dared to take another strategic look at the voluntary and community sector. It seems churlish to resent the interest of national politicians, particularly when we are also keen for their support – and sometimes their funding – but they have so often seemed to misunderstand our motivations and actions and then attempted to shape these for their own purposes that it is hard to take an unbiased look at what is being proposed.

The first thing I noticed about the Strategy is that, once again, a government has decided to re-name our sector. The New Labour government decided that we were “the third sector”, David Cameron’s coalition government called us “civil society” and the current government has now decided that we are the “social sector”. Whilst we can perhaps agree that the “voluntary and community sector” and “not-for-profit sector” are less than perfect names, they do seem clearer than these new titles, and they are also names that we have given ourselves…

Moving on from that grumble, however, to the detail of the Strategy, there are a lot of positives to be found, including a restated commitment to the principles of a Compact between the government and the social sector; a suggested strengthening the Social Value Act (so that Central government departments will be expected to apply the Social Value Act to ‘goods and works’ as well as services – and a requirement that they will ‘account for’ the social value of new procurements, rather than just ‘consider’ it); and an acknowledgement that current commissioning practices often favour large companies at the expense of voluntary organisations and partnerships. These are all very welcome developments, and the London CVSs will do our best to encourage central government to extend these plans to local government – where most of the voluntary sector’s engagement with the public sector actually takes place.

The Strategy also has a very welcome section on the importance of local infrastructure support of kind provided by RedbridgeCVS. “Such support can help ensure representation for disadvantaged local communities, provide a voice for the smallest social sector organisations, and help to support local partnership working... Despite the value of local support the current model, largely made up of Councils for Voluntary Services, faces significant challenges [there is also a] rise in demand for support and a decline in resources, which would mean that even the best infrastructure bodies will need to find new ways of working.” I very much hope that this acknowledgement might mean more funding for CVSs and Volunteer Centres, but I fear that this may just mean more optimistic encouragement for businesses to share their skills and knowledge with local not-for-profit groups at a time when many businesses themselves are struggling to survive. This is particularly challenging in places like Redbridge which have very few large businesses with the capacity to share staff time and knowledge. The Strategy also includes a plan for “collective action to open up trusteeship to people from different backgrounds and with a broad range of skills.” We know that Trustees are becoming increasingly difficult to find as people need to work more hours every week, and for more years of our lives, to make ends meet. If this “collective action” does yield positive results, and we can begin to engage more with local business who could share premises, skills, trustee time and potentially even funding with local voluntary and community organisations, then this would be very positive!

The Strategy also has some interesting comments in relation to the role of voluntary and community organisations in sharing our views on policy and the impacts of welfare cuts etc.: “The government is determined that charities and social enterprises should be fully confident in their right to speak in public debates and to have a strong role in shaping policy and speaking up on behalf of those they support.” This is, sadly, not matched by a commitment to change the Lobbying Act 2014 – but does go some way to beginning to repair some of the damage caused by Brooks Newmark MP, who said in his first speech as the Civil Society Minister, that charities should “stick to their knitting” and not get involved in politics. Whilst there is a temptation for us to tell the government to “not get involved in the voluntary sector, and stick to their Brexit negotiations,” it would be a wasted opportunity not to engage with the government on this new Strategy in the hope that we can reform commissioning so that people can be supported to design and deliver their own local services - with adequate funding and support so that people experience public services as working with them not doing things to them, and work with our colleagues in the public sector who share our aims of healthy, vibrant and thriving communities.

The full document, as well as an Executive Summary, can be downloaded here.

Your thoughts and comments would be very welcome!

Ross Diamond, Chief Executive Officer, RedbridgeCVS


Bishop: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones";

Curate: "Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!"

"True Humility" by George du Maurier, originally published in Punch, 9 November 1895.


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