Yesterday, I was at RAWM’s consultation event on the Conservative Green Paper, A Stronger Society: Voluntary Action in the 21st Century (previously covered in this post).
It was a chance to hear the Conservative line from Nick Hurd, shadow minster for charities, social enterprise & volunteering, MP for Ruislip-Northwood — and, of course, Douglas Hurd’s son and the fourth generation of his family to be elected to Parliament.
The event took the form of an address from Hurd followed by brief questions and then roundtable discussion in which groups were asked to consider key points from the speech in greater detail.
Hurd was relaxed and confident, but there was also a hint of steel when he set out the key Conservative values that underpin his party’s vision for the sector, and especially when identifying areas in which he feels the sector must do better.
Conservatives, he began by saying, are sceptical of big government and see the third sector as central in helping to reassert a greater sense of personal and community responsibility — a Britain in which people are more ready to help themselves and to help each other. He believes that the sector has become over-dependent on the state — both in terms of where its income comes from and what it does — and that resources have become concentrated in the hands of the largest organisations: two trends in particular that concern him. “What I want to see,” he went on to explain, “is an ecosystem of organisations embedded in local communities — operating especially in those areas where the state has failed for over twenty-five years.”
The main themes of his speech were structured around what the sector can expect from a ‘reformed’ Office for the Third Sector (or its equivalent) under a Conservative government.
The strategic mission of this new office will be “to unlock the potential of the sector” and in all of its work Hurd will insist that it asks three questions:
- What are we doing to make it easier to run a charity or third sector organisation?
- What are we doing to encourage people to donate more time and money to the sector?
- And what are we doing to make it easier for the sector to do business with the state?
In elaborating on the first question Hurd said that government has to reduce the burden of red tape and bureaucracy impeding the sector and has to get infrastructure support for the sector right. “I can see the great value of the sector being able to communicate and network effectively, and I also see the need for technical support — and the need for public funds to support this, because I can’t see where else the money is likely to come from,” Hurd said. “But I can’t see or understand the overall architecture of this support. How can anyone? I asked my researchers to map it out for me but they said they had tried and that it was just too complicated.”
Hurd continued by posing a challenge to the audience: “Everywhere I go people tell me that Capacitybuilders was well-intentioned but botched. So tell me how infrastructure support should be delivered. But don’t tell me what’s best for the organisations that deliver support: tell me what’s best for customers.”
On the second question of giving more time and money, the Conservatives’ intention — as the Green Paper says — is to create “a cultural norm” of donating. “So tell me what we need to look at — the tax system, incentives — what? If we can unleash the power of donating then we could be directing not millions but billions of pounds into the sector. That’s the prize.” Again, it is the particular Conservative perspective that makes this issue interesting. Conservatives, Hurd explained, are committed to shrinking government and the state — and massively increased income from public donation could “set the voluntary sector free financially from both”.
On the third question — making it easier to do business with the state — Hurd explained that the reform of commissioning will be a gigantic task. “Do not for one moment under-estimate the scale of the change required,” he said, particularly given that the priority — “restoring the health of public finances” — will be the same irrespective of which party forms the next government. He then went on to elaborate on some of the key themes covered in the Green Paper — in particular:
- The need for accountability in spending public money, but an end to absurd levels of micro-management and intereference, both in contracts and commissioning — “a return to trust”.
- The importance of grant-aid as well as contracts, and
- A return to greater freedom for local authorities, making it critical that the sector develops its relationships and communication with locally elected members.
One of the most surprising aspects of Hurd’s address was his clear signalling that the sector will need to strike a new relationship with local authorities. “Over the past twenty-five years we have allowed local councils to become merely creatures of government. Conservatives will change that. There will be greater accountability to communities rather than to the secretary of state.”
He also made it clear that he doesn’t believe the sector works hard enough in building relationships with local government. “I heard Kevin Curley from NAVCA ask the audience at a recent conference the following questions. ‘Who’s been in touch with their local councillors recently to make sure they know who you are and what you do? Who’s been in touch to make sure they understand what your work achieves and how? Who’s been in touch to make sure they understand your value-for-money?’ Do you know, not a single hand went up. It’s not good enough.”
He echoed this theme again in answering a question about the voluntary sector Compact. The Compact should have statutory status — it must “have teeth”, he acknowledged — but he also warned the audience that they were mistaken if they believed the Compact to be the only answer. How the sector prospers is really about relationships, he said, not a pieve of paper headed ‘Compact’. “I have always thought it’s about the attitudes that prevail in that small world made up of around about 400 leaders of councils up and down the country. Get all of them on your side and that will transform relations with the sector.”
It was a fascinating event and RAWM are to be congratulated for organising it.