The general election, politics and charities

Charities have to be very cautious at the best of times about never being seen to support or oppose a particular political party. While there have been attempts, formal and informal, to restrict the freedom of charities to speak out on issues, these have been resisted.

In normal times it is fine for me to say that a particular policy will have a positive or negative impact on our client group, even if that policy is associated entirely with one political party. It is not acceptable to say: “Those evil (party name), typical of them proposing ….” And equally unacceptable to say: “I love the (party name), they are so wonderful ….”.

During a general election it is all the more restrictive. There is a fine line that can easily be crossed by statements that can be seen supporting or opposing the manifesto of a particular party. There are things I have long called for which might, and I suspect will, be in the manifesto of various parties, but not all.

Therefore, discretion is the better part of valour at these times.

In some elections we have a procession of politicians wishing to be seen visiting BHT or one of its services. The approach we will be taking this year is not to agree to a visit to BHT services by local candidates. I will meet with any of them to brief them on the issues facing our clients and those facing BHT itself.

In one election, three candidates who were due to debate each other on the Sunday Politics South East asked me to brief them. I t was amusing to listen to them, two of them normally at odds with each other, agreeing with each other, the third ignored what I had said and opposed the other two.

So this blog will be more toned down than usual. I will be publishing real life stories of clients but none will be related to the election.

But come 9th June, I might just find my voice again!

The smallest charities are finding the going hardest and fear for their future

18% of charity chief executives believe that their organisation is struggling to survive, according to a survey carried out by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (of which I am a member).

What is particularly worrying is that charities with a turnover of less than £1 million were disproportionately represented in those who are taking a pessimistic view. Those of us leading larger organisations are fortunate to have more options available to us, and the loss of one or two key income streams will not compromise the financial viability of the organisation as a whole, even though individual services might close.

It is these small organisations that are probably the closest to their communities but may also be ones that are least equipped to respond to a worsening economic environment.

Three small organisations have sought sanctuary by joining BHT over recent years – Threshold Women’s Counselling, the Hastings Community Housing Association (HCHA), and the Whitehawk Inn. There are some efficiencies to be gained by such mergers, but they are often overestimated. The real advantage can come through shared central expertise and improved cash flow.

Merging with a larger organisation can ensure the continuation of services and doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of identity. Threshold is still called Threshold, HCHA is now Hastings Community Housing, and the Whitehawk Inn remains the same.

There is a loss of autonomy with the governance and management arrangements of the ‘receiving’ organisation tending to take over, and the business disciplines will be applied across the expanded organisation.

An understandable mistake that trustees of small, struggling charities are known to make is to hope a corner will be turned or something cropping up. That very rarely happens. They might leave an approach to a larger, relatively stronger, organisation too late. It is tough to be at the helm of an organisation that is struggling. I know, I have been there. But an early approach can result in charitable services being saved and continued. After all, that is why we are here.

Charging charities for the work of the Charity Commission is not on

The Charity Commission is to consult about whether charities should pay towards the running cost of the Commission. In a recent poll, 78% of 225 respondent said no. The charge would be between £60 and £3000 and would pay towards the running costs of the Commission.

I wonder whether there is a fundamental flaw with this proposal. Charities are very restricted on how they can spend money. If money was donated for one purpose, it may not be spent on another. I am currently asking for sponsorship for a charity cycle ride and have said that the money raised would go towards the cost of running First Base Day Centre. We would not be allowed to use any of that money for any other purpose such as …. paying a fee towards the running costs of the Charity Commission.

If a charity spends money on an item for which the money was not raised, the Charity Commission would certainly have something to say about that.

We could, of course, start a JustGiving appeal to pay our fee to the Commission but I doubt that there would be an overwhelming response from the public to meet this dubious cost.

The Charity Commission is a Quango and, as such, the government should ensure that it is fit for purpose and adequately funded for that purpose. It should not be imposing a tax on charities whose funds were intended for truly charitable purposes.

The Whitehawk Inn: a hidden jewel amongst the many gems in Brighton and Hove

The Rockinghorse, the Martletts, the Sussex Beacon, even BHT’s First Base Day Centre, are high profile charities which enjoy wide public support.

However, there are many smaller gems in the community that do amazing work, and bring about huge improvements in the lives of ordinary people in our communities.

whinn-painting_W220Even within BHT, we have our own gems that tend to get crowded out by First Base. One of them is the Whitehawk Inn.  Until April 2015, it was an independent charity.  Now part of BHT, it provides courses and a variety of free activity clubs open to residents of Brighton and Hove, not just those living in Whitehawk itself.

The Whitehawk Inn is so much more than a learning centre. The café and garden provide a bright and relaxing space to enjoy a cup of coffee and catch up with friends and colleagues.

We have flat screen PCs available for low cost Internet access and printing in the café area.

Many of our learners and clients have low self-confidence and self-belief, so having onsite careers advisors, a learning programme and being involved in a range of partnership activities enables us to create opportunities and promote change.

We have recently launched our new autumn 2016 training brochure which covers a comprehensive range of non-accredited and accredited training courses including GCSE Maths, Food Safety Level 2 Award, Singing Together for the over 65’s, and IT Qualification Level 1.

To view the autumn 2016 course brochure please visit our website.

The new Mayor of Brighton and Hove has adopted a new approach to supporting his (27) charities

(This article first appeared in the Brighton Argus on 14th May 2016)

2015/16 was a record-breaking year for the Mayor’s Charities. By raising £60,000, Cllr. Lynda Hyde, who stood down as the Mayor of Brighton and Hove on Thursday, broke the previous record set by Brian Fitch in 2014/15.

In that year, BHT was one of three beneficiaries and the amounts raised went a long way to our own record-breaking year in raising funds for First Base Day Centre. Heaven knows, the services offered by First Base are needed more than ever before.  The enthusiasm and energy that Brian and Norah Fitch showed was a huge encouragement.

Pete West with an election opponent in the 2011 Brighton and Hove City Council elections

Pete West with an election opponent in the 2011 Brighton and Hove City Council elections

The new mayor, Cllr Peter West, is taking an interesting and novel approach to his charities. Rather than selecting two or three who would benefit from his fundraising efforts, he has decided to work with a total of 27 charities.  While the Mayor’s Charity Committee traditionally organises events throughout the year, Mayor West will be supporting events organised by the charities themselves.

Will this approach be better or worse? I think it is certainly worth a try even though it breaks, in some way, with tradition. If the 27 charities each raise £3,000 with the support of the Mayor, that would raise £81,000, itself beating Lynda Hyde’s record.  As one of the twenty seven charities chosen by Cllr. West, BHT will use this opportunity to raise as much as possible.

I wish Pete West a very successful year as the First Citizen of our city, and I thank Lynda Hyde for all she has done over the last year.

The government is at risk of losing the input of charities input policy making

This week, along with 137 other charity chief executives, I signed a letter to the Prime Minister, The Rt Hon David Cameron MP, regarding a proposal by the Cabinet Office aimed at preventing the use of funding to inform public policy and bans organisations from discussing issues related to the work funded by the grant with government officials or parliamentarians. I wrote about this earlier in the week.

Here is the text of the letter we signed:

Dear Prime Minister

Anti-advocacy clauses

We are writing following the publication of Cabinet Office guidelines to prohibit organisations in receipt of grant funding from influencing government or parliament. The proposed guidance would prevent the use of funding to inform public policy and bans organisations also from discussing issues related to the work funded by the grant with government officials or parliamentarians.

You have long recognised that voluntary organisations play a much needed role in policy development and regulatory reform. Facilitated by the open policy making approach you have championed, voluntary organisations bring the real-world experience of users and evidence-based expertise into public policy debate.

We support the principle that taxpayers’ money must be well spent. And it is because of this that these proposals are flawed in principle, for they may actually cost the taxpayer more money through limiting the range of insight that policy makers can draw upon.

Organisations funded by government have helped to reform and improve public services. They have held providers to account and brought to public attention failures that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Much of this work can and does save taxpayers money, contrary to the assertions of the report cited as evidence for the introduction of the proposals. The clause itself (published on 8 February on Gov.uk) is drawn incredibly widely and could have a far broader impact than your original intention.

For example, in October 2015, you announced a £5m grant fund for charities as part of the government’s counter-extremism strategy. As currently drafted, the new clause will undermine the ability of these charities to feed in valuable insights that may help government – those working on programmes receiving any grant funding would be prohibited from speaking to MPs about developments in their local area, suggesting improvements to policy or legislation, responding to your government’s own consultations, meeting ministers to discuss broader issues and evidence from their programme or even from giving evidence if called by a select committee.

Another example is that of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Awareness of FGM, and the action which has subsequently been taken against this, has occurred primarily due to the work of key charities which, thankfully, were in receipt of government funding. This clause would almost certainly have prohibited that vital initiative.

In your first speech as leader of the Conservative party you set out how you wanted to ‘set free the voluntary sector and social enterprises to deal with the linked problems that blight so many of our communities, of drug abuse, family breakdown, poor public space, chaotic home environments, high crime’. You have repeatedly reiterated your commitment to social justice, which depends upon building alliances of grassroots organisations. To say to those organisations that government will work in partnership with them but if they do, they will not be heard, is surely contrary to those commitments. And only this week you set out your ambitions for the reform of the prison service. Charities have been at the forefront of campaigning for such reforms for decades. It would be a tragedy if in future such critical advocacy work were inhibited.

Both Parliament and government play an important role in addressing these issues, and it is important that they remain well informed about how policies and programmes are making a difference on the ground.

As Prime Minister you have recognised that voluntary organisations play a crucial role in our democracy. Indeed, these proposals are at odds with the entire framework under which your government has sought to develop sound working relationships with voluntary organisations.

The Compact, which you signed in 2010, remains an important signifier of government commitment to working effectively with the voluntary and community sector. In signing it you committed government to:

‘Respect and uphold the independence of civil society organisations to deliver their mission, including their right to campaign, regardless of any relationship, financial or otherwise, which may exist.’

We believe that a strong, effective working relationship between voluntary organisations and the state, based upon mutual respect and understanding, is beneficial to the people of this country and beyond. The ability of voluntary organisations to campaign, regardless of any financial relationship, is a defining characteristic of this relationship. Abandoning this protection is surely not the intended consequence of these proposals, as their impact runs contrary to the relationship you have sought to develop. As such, we urge you to reconsider them and work with the voluntary sector to find a constructive way forward.

Yours sincerely

Sir Stephen Bubb, Chief Executive, Acevo
Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive, NCVO
and 136 other chief executives of charities.

New rules will gag charities from campaigning and lobbying government

In BHT’s contract of employment is a section on gross misconduct, and an act that qualifies as gross misconduct is ‘insubordination’, that is being disobedient to authority or defiant. It is right that an organisation has such provision. It cannot be right if everyone felt that they were able to do, and say, anything they like.

But there must be a balance struck, and we have provisions to nature that if we, as an organisation, gets it wrong, there are measures available to staff and clients to try to rectify things. Clients have a complaints procedure, staff a grievance procedure. We protect the right of individuals to make a complaint or declare a grievance. We also have a whistleblowing policy that allows individuals to raise matters with senior managers, the Board or even outside bodies.

Such checks and balances are important for any organisation or institution because things can go wrong, sometimes inadvertently and other times by wilful, even corrupt, intent.

A confident organisation, committed to getting things right and to justice, values honest feedback. It even encourages it.

So why does the government take the opposite view. From May, charities will no longer be allowed to spend taxpayers’ money on lobbying government. The Cabinet Office said grants would mean funds go to good causes not political campaigns.

On the surface this might sound right and proper. But charities often are the first to grasp the harmful consequences and unintended consequences of government policy. Take the current proposal to cap rents in specialist supported accommodation (something I have written about a lot recently), BHT and similar organisations across the country have warned that this measure, to be introduced from April 2018, will result in the closure of tens of thousands of specialist rooms for people with high support needs.

What should we do? Remain silent, perhaps “stick to our knitting” as a former Minister for the Third Sector suggested? Say nothing and allow the government to make a monumental error?

Of course not. We must lobby government and, if necessary, should the government persist, we should campaign. I have written to our local MPs, I have campaigned on the issue, even appearing on Channel 4 News pointing to the folly of this policy.

A confident government, committed to getting things right and to justice, should value honest feedback. It should even encourage it.

What does it say about a government that tries to gag dissent? This is not a criticism aimed just at the current government, the same was also true under New Labour. I am reminded of the saying of the Latin American priest, Dom Helder Camara, who said: “When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask, why are they hungry, they call me a communist!”

Of course charities shouldn’t become involved in party politics, but do allow us to speak truth to power. In fact, the government should welcome and encourage it.

Postscript: Do have a look at what my friend and fellow blogger Ian Chisnall has written about this. (Updated 08/02/16)