From Paternalism to Participation: Labour’s new civil society strategy

ACEVO’s head of policy, Kristiana Wrixon, reflects on Labour’s new civil society strategy

Yesterday Steve Reed, the shadow civil society minister, launched From Paternalism to Participation, Labour’s long awaited Civil Society Strategy. Labour’s strategy is 14 pages compared to the government’s lengthy 123 page strategy, but size isn’t everything and there is a lot to welcome in the Labour strategy.

I am pleased to see a lot of cross-over with ACEVO’s own policy strategy. Both aspire to achieve fairer regulation, greater freedom to campaign and increased diversity in leadership. Labour’s strategy also commits to giving charity trustees equal status in law to school governors and councillors, something that Susan Elan Jones MP has been leading on after introducing the Charity Trustee Bill (under the Ten Minute Rule) in March this year. The Bill has been supported by ACEVO, Small Charities Coalition and NCVO.

It’s also pleasing to see a strategy that does not think the answer to the problems we face is to invest huge amounts of money in creating new organisations. Instead the Labour strategy talks about investing in communities and local civil society organisations that are already doing the work but have not had sufficiently investment.

Overall it appears there are more firm commitments in Labour’s civil society strategy then there are in the government’s strategy. But it is arguably easier to make definitive statements of intent in opposition, so should there be a change in government we would need to hold Labour to account in the same we have been doing with the current government.

Some key commitments that may be of particular interest to members are to:

  • increase grant funding to ensure smaller charities can benefit
  • encourage local authorities to identify and support ‘community anchor organisations’ that can help local communities participate in decision-making
  • establish a Charities Leadership Programme to support future leaders from more diverse backgrounds
  • repeal the Lobbying Act and ban gagging clauses in government grants and contracts
  • support charities to increase the use of digital technology and digital platforms
  • ensure the UK Shared Prosperity Fund matches the funding lost from the EU
  • launch reviews into the Social Value Act, social investment and the Gift Aid Small Donations Scheme

These are all positive commitments that reflect the level of consultation that has taken place with sector representatives, but it’s not all rosy. The Charity Commission is not referenced anywhere in the document, which is particularly odd considering that one section of the report is titled ‘A fair legal framework’. There is no indication as to Labour’s view on cuts to the Charity Commission’s budget in recent years, or that the Commission has said it has to do more with less money.

It is unclear why, instead of lending political support to the Community Wealth Fund, a sector led proposal supported by over 100 civil society organisations to use dormant assets to provide long-term investment in ‘left behind’ communities, Labour has instead proposed using dormant assets to invest in a new Community Innovation Fund which seems to have the same aims. There is no point in reinventing the wheel when a well researched, well supported and well scoped project already exists.

My last note of caution is about some of the language used in the document. The strategy is titled From Paternalism to Participation but occasionally veers into some fairly paternalistic language itself. For example talking about the ‘voiceless’ rather than the unheard or ignored and at one point saying: “People who are the most disadvantaged often have limited capacity to participate, so we will involve charities and campaign groups to act as their advocates and make sure they always have a voice when decisions that affect them are taken.”

Advocacy is one of the many important roles of charities but if the sector is to become truly participative we should be aiming to create more inclusive, accessible systems so that groups that have been disadvantaged due to structural inequality can participate and influence the decisions that impact them. I asked Steve Reed about the language in the report in the Q&A session of the launch event and was impressed when he talked about the starting point for the document being to remove structural inequality, so I hope my concerns about language will prove unfounded.

Labour’s strategy is an encouraging document; although we will have to wait and see how many of these promises would be met if the party gained power: I am sure we are all familiar with manifesto promises that do not materialise.

As Karl Wilding at NCVO tweeted yesterday: “Regardless of whether we agree with the new strategy, it’s high time we had some competition between political parties in terms of their agenda for charities and volunteering.” It is good that for the first time in my two and a half years at ACEVO I am able to directly compare the civil society strategies of the two biggest political parties in Westminster. I hope we will now see all political parties setting out their approach to civil society before the next general election takes place.

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