The Third Sector & The Next Government

Charity and politics are often closely linked. Not least because the Government is a huge funder of charities.

I don’t need to go far to find an example. Look at the finances of my charity, Solent Youth Action. Our single biggest funder by far, was started by, and receives a lot of funding from, central Government. Even a lot of our other funders, whether local councils or NHS trusts, are influenced by central government policy.

The point is, as a charity our future can be affected by politics. And with an election coming up, it’s a particularly popular time to look ahead and wonder about what politicians might decide to do in relation to the “Third Sector“.

To help with this, Community Action Hampshire and the SCA Institute of Social Enterprise organised an event on the 12th March for charity directors and trustees to hear directly from the three main political parties on “The Third Sector and the Next Government”.

The format was pretty straightforward. Three MPs – one from Labour, one from the Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat – were each given time to make a short speech, followed by time for Q&A. Once they all had a turn, there was a general Q&A for the three of them as a panel.

I enjoyed the event, and thought it might be interesting to share some of what I heard.


First up was Nick Hurd MP. Conservative Shadow Minister for Charities, Social Enterprise and Volunteering.

After a quick and entertainingly unsubtle plug for the local Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate in the room, he launched into his scene-setting. The narrative was basically that the country is facing difficult, stubborn problems. Problems that will be expensive (in both financial, and human terms) to address. He gave examples like unemployment and crime (in particular, reoffending) rates.

From this bleak picture, he introduced the positive: the strength of an “independent civil society” – the stuff that we do for each other, independent of the state. It was a reasonably typical Conservative message – that the state is too big, that we are too dependent on it, and that we should be left to do stuff for ourselves and each other without the Government getting in the way. But it played well in a room full of charity execs from organisations who deliver more and more services to the community.

Which led him to the somewhat unavoidable bit where he told us how great we all were – saying that the value of the Third Sector is it’s ability to provide imaginative and innovative solutions to society’s problems. He had a couple of examples from his own constituency, such as a charity which only employs people with criminal records, so as to give them a first step towards becoming employable again. Interesting idea.

His general theme was that the state needed to get out of the way, and create more space for charities to do this sort of stuff.

With general scene-setting done, he moved on to a few specific points about what a Conservative government would do in relation to charities.

“Do no harm”
He argued that new governments should not come in and undo the work of previous governments just because they weren’t their ideas. He acknowledged that Labour has had “good intentions” towards the Third Sector, giving the establishment of the Office of the Third Sector as an example, and one which would be continued. However he said that the Conservatives would go further, such as establishing a new committee that would hold government to account on Third Sector issues.

That said, when questioned on more specifics, he was vague on the future of v – the organisation started by Labour to support youth volunteering (and the biggest single funder for my charity, as I mentioned above). He reminded us that the Conservatives were quite critical of the creation of v, believing that it would inevitably “soak” some money to run itself – money which should go directly to charities. He accepted that v has “done some good work”, but said that he was not able to make any commitments to future funding.

“What is Government doing to make it easier to run a charity?”
He talked about how the bureaucracy surrounding running a charity has been getting thicker, harder, and more complicated and that we’ve lost sight of the damage that this is doing. He said that we need to “clear this thicket”, giving the example of Gift Aid, which he argued is inefficient and ineffective (citing the low numbers of people using it) and has an unacceptable burden of paperwork for charities.

“What can we do to get more resources (both time and money) into the sector?”
He cited examples of big employers (unfortunately not my own!) – Barclays Bank was mentioned a few times – who support their employees to volunteer, and the benefits this brings to them.

He mentioned the Big Lottery Fund, saying that he was angry that this important resource has been raided for “Government pet projects” and that the Conservatives would get this “back to basics”.

He said that he wanted to get people to donate more, to “reconnect with the joy of philanthropy”. I wasn’t entirely clear on how he was proposing to do this, but he made general comments about wanting to encourage and inspire people to give more – and compared the levels of regular charitable giving in the UK with the much higher rate in the US. He talked about this as a cultural difference which should be tackled, arguing that it wasn’t a lack of generosity in the UK (giving examples of reactive donations in response to one-off events and appeals such as Comic Relief).

“How can government make it easier for charities who have to deal with them as funders?”
He talked about how too many charities “have to do business with the state”. This led on from his previous point about wanting the public to donate more, and reduce the reliance of the Third Sector on state funding. He argued that charities need “robust independence” from the state, and that charities relying on money from the state is a worry. He also touched on possibilities for “social entrepeneurs” and “social investment” providing a “third pillar” of funding, after public donations and state funding.

However, for those charities that do receive public money, he said that the Government should make it easier for charities to deal with them directly as funders. He argued that politicians shouldn’t emote about charities’ innovation and creativity on the one hand, while imposing burdensome and restrictive requirements on the other.

He argued that there was a need for more grants, and fewer contracts. He gave a few extreme examples, such as a 28-page contract required to receive a few thousand pounds of Government money. He was back to his theme of less bureacracy, less unnecessary reporting and monitoring, less burdensome paperwork.

“Other stuff”
Several other topics came up, particularly in response to questions. One interesting point that he touched on was about looking into national citizenship programmes, for getting young people to engage with the community. This isn’t a new idea – the topic (and the inevitable questions about where to draw the line between volunteering and such programmes) has been raised many times before, but it was interesting to hear that it still being bounced around.

Finally, he pointed us at the Conservative website, where he said they have produced a mini-manifesto on volunteering. (I’m not 100% sure, but it might be this page on Conservative Policy?)


Next up – Alan Whitehead, MP – MP for Southampton Test.

As with Mr Hurd, he started with a little scene-setting – saying what a strong charity and volunteering culture we have. He claimed that “73% of adults say that they volunteer” and that “only Norway has a higher proportion of volunteers than the UK”.

His overall theme was that in the Third Sector we have a valiable resource that “we damage or undermine at our peril”.

In some ways, he was rather unfortunate coming second, as some of what he would’ve wanted to say had just been said. Indeed, both MPs repeatedly highlighted that there is cross party consensus about the importance of the Third Sector.

He touched on a variety of topics, including:

The Compact – in particular that the principles set out in the Compact, which he argued are good

He acknowledged the challenge of finding funding to run organisations, as many funders prefer to fund the creation of new projects, rather than to pay for the ongoing costs of established projects. He didn’t really have any answers or proposals for this problem – just highlighted that it was a problem they were aware of, and that they realise that it often results in charities repackaging or tweaking existing projects to make them look new.

He recognised the cross-party consensus in continuing the Office of the Third Sector. (And in a somewhat bizarre and apparently unprompted moment, said that he believed Nick Hurd would make an excellent minister for the Office of the Third Sector if the Conservatives were to win the General Election!)

He talked about the balance between charities being independent of Government while still be supported by Government, and some examples were raised of where this has worked well – with charities both continuing to receive state funding while challenging Government decisions and actions.

He hailed the work of the Office of the Third Sector as a good example of how Government interaction with charities should be – “hands on, but hands off at the same time”. And highlighted acheivements such as v, and the establishment of the Compact.

He said that Labour would continue to foster and encourage volunteering – and gave examples of changes being made now, such as allowing volunteering to not directly affect people’s ability to claim most benefits, so that people are not discouraged from volunteering for financial reasons.

He also mentioned the importance of employer-supported volunteering, also citing Barclays Bank as a great example of employee volunteering, facilitating and assisted by the employer.

He was keen to reassure about the continuance of funding for charities through the recession – arguing the importance of funding for the Third Sector through the “hard times”.

He spoke about the role of the Third Sector with local authorities, recognising that contracts are currently too focused on the financial bottom line and not recognising the other “added value” that charities bring.

He talked about a pilot initiative “Total Place“, which seeks to avoid charities competing with statutory services, by identifying and avoiding duplication of services within a local area. The aim is that this should ensure that finances are concentrated on a single body delivering a particular service, rather than being dissipated among a number of agencies doing similar work. He argued that this would not only save money, but also help to enhance the focus of the Third Sector. (I personally wonder how they will ensure that innovation is still protected with such a scheme… two schemes might seem broadly similar, but with that diversity can often come a spark of creativity that might not happen if there is only one “approved” provider. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to ask for more detail at the time).

He acknowledged the need to simplify some of the bureaucracy surrounding running a charity. However, unlike Mr Hurd, he believed that in many cases where laws and regulations were felt to be overly burdensome, that this was due to a misunderstanding of what is required. Giving examples such as CRB checks, he said that in some instances charities were doing things that were not actually required by law, because they mistakenly believed that it was – and that this could be better tackled by clearer guidelines from Government, rather than needing fundamental changes to existing legislation.

Liberal Democrats

Last up, Mark Oaten, MP – MP for Winchester.

He started by admitting that, as he is standing down as an MP this year, that he might not be completely informed as to the entirety of Lib Dem party policy in this area.

That said, as a trustee for a number of local charities, he was clearly well informed from a charities perspective, even if not about Lib Dem plans for charity.

He talked about several issues, including:

  • Difficulties for charities which receive public funding not knowing what is coming next, particularly in election times. How can you plan when you dont know whether money will still be coming?
  • A concern is that as money gets tight, politicians will move more towards populist issues – making life less certain for charities which support less popular or fashionable groups of society
  • The increasing move away from grants and towards contracts leading to Government becoming too prescriptive in what services charities deliver for the money, and how they do it – restricting their ability to be creative and innovative
  • Speaking of contracts, he argued that Government procurement is relation to the Third Sector is a disgrace, describing government tender documents as off-putting. He gave an example of a question in a tender document received by a small local charity – asking the average age of employees working for the charity. He asked why these sorts of questions should be relevant, and that small charities don’t have the resource to cope with such long and burdensome tender processes.
  • He challenged us as charity leaders to be even more creative when thinking about what activities to do – looking perhaps further afield in terms of activities and sources of funding. And to take a more active fundraising role.
  • He touched on CRB checks, saying that the law has now gone too far, and is causing problems for some organisations. He mentioned Gift Aid – challenging us in the Third Sector to be more clearer and more consistent about what changes we need, but recognising that it needs to be simplified. He talked about his worry of the impact on the charity sector of the removal of cheques.
  • He mentioned wanting to see more volunteering, talking about liking the idea of volunteering as a national service option.

Overall, he talked about how this was an exciting time for charities – that charities do more, have more opportunities, and are more involved than ever before. He talked about seeing a change in the debate – where in the 1997 election the debate focused on the private and public sector, he now sees consensus amongst all parties in wanting to identify how to better support the Third Sector. He described wanting to take this even further, that we need to expand what the Third Sector does yet more.

One Response to “The Third Sector & The Next Government”

  1. […] the general election, I was at a meeting for charity leaders where Conservative MP Nick Hurd (now a Minister for Charities, Social Enterprise and Volunteering […]