Gag charities and they will die: Nicholas Hinton and Don Redding attack proposals to reform voluntary organisations

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The Independent Online
THE REPORT released yesterday by the Home Office on the role of charities contains a wholly inappropriate proposal to split the voluntary sector into two. It will be opposed by the majority of voluntary organisations, not because they are predominantly interested in protecting their tax exemptions, but because the artificial division into service-providing and campaigning organisations would suck the life out of one of the most vibrant sectors of our civil society.

Implementation of the report (which is only advisory on government) would be an authoritarian intrusion into a sector that has grown up organically from the grassroots over several hundred years. It has changed, adapted, sought out new areas of need and pioneered ways of working, many of which have later been adopted by governments and state bodies. Charity may have begun as 'a medieval concept', as the report puts it, but it has redefined itself many times over to ensure its relevance to the modern world.

The second objection to the report is that it comes only a year after the charity sector was progressively re-regulated through the Charities Act 1992. This was a consensus measure which provided a sensible basis for ensuring that charities remain responsible and accountable. It cut down the potential for fraud and mismanagement while preserving the charities' freedom to fulfil their essential tasks. Unlike the new report, for which charities were only 'surveyed', the legislation contained the fruits of full consultation with the whole range of voluntary-sector organisations.

The authoritarian nature of yesterday's report is contained in its proposal for a 'non-profit' sector of service providers. These would be made totally dependent on public funding, subject to performance audits and incentives set by civil servants, and would be unable to speak publicly on issues of concern in their daily work. This would not be a true 'third sector' at all. It is privatisation by another name.

On the other side, there would be a purely 'campaigning' sector, freed from the cumbersome 'burdens' of bureaucracy and management which come with service provision, and therefore able to pursue 'ideals, change and reform'. Not to mention economic collapse - for there are few, if any charities which solely campaign. That is the job of pressure groups, or campaigning organisations, think-tanks, and political parties; but not of charities. Campaign groups find it notoriously difficult to maintain adequate funding to see them through each financial year, and most would dearly love to be able to afford the 'burden' of effective management.

The most serious objection is that the proposed recommendations would split many voluntary organisations in half, render them difficult to sustain on either track, and deprive the United Kingdom of what is internationally recognised as one of its greatest strengths. The fact is that the best charities provide services and speak out on issues of concern to the people who are receiving those services.

Save the Children has a 'mission statement' to guide all its work. It reads in part: 'Save the Children works to achieve lasting benefits for children within the communities in which they live, by influencing policy and practices based on its experience . . . .'

When a member of the public entrusts it with pounds 1, Save the Children has a responsibility to produce the maximum benefit from that donation. That means not only helping children directly, but also using experience to gain wider benefits for children, by making sure that those with more power - the donors, governments and local authorities with whom it works - understand and put into practice the lessons learnt.

A few examples from history serve as an illustration. In 1923 Save the Children's founder, Eglantyne Jebb, drafted the first declaration of 'the Rights of the Child'. The next year it was adopted by the League of Nations. In 1959 it became part of the United Nations charter and by 1989 this had evolved into the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the international declaration governing children's issues worldwide. The UK government ratified the convention in December 1991.

In the 1950s, Save the Children pioneered play-schemes for children in hospitals. In the 1980s it pioneered prison visitors' centres to provide an appropriate environment for children visiting imprisoned family members, and the Home Office has stated that such centres should be included in every new prison.

In the 1980s Save the Children was one of several voluntary organisations that took Home Office money and used their own strengths in flexibility and innovation to experiment with alternatives to custody for young offenders. These experiments proved beyond doubt that community solutions to youth crime are far more effective than custodial punishment. When the Home Office decided to turn its back on these findings earlier this year, Save the Children and the UK's other large children's organisations led the criticism of plans by the former Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, for new 'secure training centres' for teenage offenders.

The key point here is that current legislation has got it about right. Charities are not allowed to campaign or make political statements on issues about which they know little. They are empowered to speak out on issues directly affecting the people with whom they work. These statements, of which Save the Children's criticisms of the UN's failures in Somalia are a prime example, must be securely based on direct experience gained through service provision.

It is only by maintaining a broad funding base that voluntary organisations can preserve sufficient independence to carry out these twin roles. Many charities are already faced with dilemmas caused by the advent of the contracting culture, but at least they can resolve these by their own free choice in a competitive bidding system. Forcing them to cut off one limb or the other from a healthy body would be likely to have the opposite effect to that intended by government policy: it would deeply discourage them from contracting for services as their councils of trustees - who are passionate volunteers committed to their causes - reject the prospect of being bound and gagged.

For this reason alone it is difficult to imagine that the report could ever be implemented. Certainly one hopes it never will be.

Nicholas Hinton is director general and Don Redding press officer of Save the Children.

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