Independence in Question: the voluntary sector in 2016

Reports

Independence in Question is the fifth annual assessment of the state of health of the voluntary sector, following on from the final report the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector published in February 2015. It warns that the independence of the charity sector is at a five year low, leaving an unhealthy imbalance between community, private sector and state power and the sector in a critical position, and it calls for united action by the voluntary sector to stave off potential further threats. 

The report highlights how the new ‘no advocacy’ clauses in all taxpayer funded grants announced in February 2016 mark a key shift in the balance of voices shaping public policy.  The input of grass root and expert voluntary organisations ensures all voices in society can be heard, the report argues, and is especially important at a time of massive changes in services and benefits.

It also reveals how a recent wave of controversies around charity operations – including poor fund raising practices and the alleged selling of inappropriate commercial products – has left the rest of the sector more vulnerable than ever to attack and proves the need for some larger organisations to make sure they are being true to their independent, charitable purpose in everything they do.

Across the piece, it documents a range of challenges that are weakening the voluntary sector:

  • Growing threats to the sector’s independent voice, including the new ‘no advocacy’ clause in government grants announced in February 2015; increasing use of ‘gagging clauses’ and ‘no advocacy’ conditions in contracts, for example in refugee and women’s services; lack of consultation about these and other changes; and Part 2 of the so-called Lobbying Act, which the independent Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement said ‘had a negative impact on charities and campaign groups speaking out on legitimate issues ahead of the election.’

  • Increasing threats to independent action due to unsupportive statutory funding and contracting arrangements which often hamstring charities from delivering effective services, and are putting the viability of an important ‘eco system’ of independent support by smaller voluntary organisations at particular risk.

  • Challenges to the independent purpose of some charities, due to a loss of distinctive identity caused partly by growing commercialisation, concluding that some large service delivery charities should take ‘an honest look at how they are distinguishable from the private and public sectors.’ It also says that some charities lack independence from government, referencing Government pressure on independent housing associations to make them sell of their assets by giving tenants a ‘right to buy.’

  • Concerns about examples where the independent regulator, the Charity Commission appears to have been politically driven, including perceptions of excessive regulation in relation to Muslim charities, and a Compact agreement between the Government and the sector that has failed to prevent breaches.

    The report calls for these issues to be addressed by both the Government and the voluntary sector and warns that further threats are likely unless the tide is checked.  It calls on the voluntary sector to work together to  develop a new and more self-confident narrative about the voluntary sector which stresses the distinctive qualities of an independent sector, challenges the status quo and shows how it can be even better at delivering its mission.

    The report is published with the generous support of the Baring Foundation and the Lankelly Chase Foundation.