The Prime Minister has appointed John Glen as the new Minister for Civil Society. This a very important role though it has not always had the recognition nor political clout it should have. One hopes that this will change under Mr. Glen’s tenure.
This tenure may be short if the Government does not last and a new general election is called but in the meantime, I suggest that there are five issues which should be a top of Mr. Glen’s action list.
First: he should seek to persuade the PM that responsibility for civil society, the voluntary and community sector (VCS) and charities should be relocated to the Cabinet Office. This would signal that the Government takes these sectors seriously and that they are seen as central to all public policy, social, environmental and economic activity. The Minister should have the explicit support and sponsorship of the PM to reach across Whitehall and beyond.
Second: he should openly and loudly champion the right – and I would suggest duty – of charities to engage in public policy debate, to promote policy and oppose policies which are deemed to be damaging to their beneficiaries, and to campaign. He should commit the Government to this principle that it actively engages with charities in the development of policy and its implementation from Brexit to all civil policies.
Specifically this would require the immediate removal of all gagging clauses in public contracts and grant agreements and the revision of the Lobbying Act to allow charities and the VCS to speak up and speak out on behalf of their beneficiaries and the wider community with no fear of either legal sanction nor loss of current or future funding. By these actions John Glen would demonstrate a commitment to the role and contribution of civil society in the economic, social and political life of a modern democracy. He would earn the sector’s respect.
Third: he should acknowledge that charities and some VCS organisations can sometimes deliver public services more effectively than the public sector but this is not always the case. He should set out a clear statement that the Government does not see the sector as a replacement for the public sector direct service provision but sees it as a potential partner and in the right circumstances complementary to direct provision. Government should value its innovation, challenging orthodoxy and advocacy roles.
In respect of public service provision, John Glen should urgently implement changes to government strategic commissioning and procurement so that charities and, in particular small VCS organisations can undertake public service delivery and where necessary submit bids that will be seriously considered. This would include using grant aid rather than complex competitive contracting wherever possible, full cost-plus payments which include an element of financial margin, no ‘gagging clauses’, and encouraging and enabling charities to innovate to secure outcomes. Whilst the minister cannot direct local authorities and other public bodies on these matters he should actively engage with them to encourage such practices
Fourth: he should celebrate and actively promote volunteering in a number of ways including by amending both employment legislation and benefit regulations to enable greater numbers of people to volunteer, encouraging young people to volunteer, working with employers, colleges and schools, and providing funding to develop and support volunteering schemes. He should clearly state that it is not government policy to substitute paid public servants with volunteers or ever to impose ‘involuntary’ volunteering.
Fifth: he should engage with sector leaders and the wider sector to identify other ways in which the Government can demonstrate that it respects the role, independence and contribution of the VCS and charities. This should include considering how it can financially support sector development and representative sector bodies, amend tax legislation to ensure fairness for the sector and review charity law, governance and regulation so that the sector is fit for the modern world.
This is a big but important ‘in-tray’. If John Glen is going to be worthy of his new title he and his ministerial colleagues cannot afford to move items from this ‘in-tray’ to a ‘pending-on-hold tray’. There is a real risk that a minority government will do precisely this and the last seven years do not give too many signals for hope. A start, at least, would set an agenda for the next Government to pursue.
Society, our economy and our environment cannot wait – they and we all need strong vibrant charities and an effective VCS especially now.