Tania Mason: New PM must prevent the most vulnerable from falling through the cracks

12 Sep 2022 Voices

By the time you read this, the UK will have a new prime minister, but as I write, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are still in the final days of their contest to succeed Boris Johnson.

Liz Truss, incoming prime minister

Chris Mcandrew / Creative Commons

After the shambles of Johnson’s premiership, almost anyone would be better to lead the country through the challenges that lie ahead. But I doubt that many charity leaders will be openly cheering as one of these two takes their place at the podium outside No 10.

Despite some patronages for Sunak at National Osteoporosis Support Group (Hambleton & Richmondshire), Leyburn Brass Band and Wensleydale Wheels community transport, neither candidate has displayed any real understanding of the charity sector, and their policy records and recent pronouncements will do little to inspire confidence in their willingness to learn.

As chancellor, Sunak was behind the cut to the overseas aid budget from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%, and Truss’s new international development strategy will almost halve multilateral spending. Both moves were heavily criticised by the INGO community. The candidates have also voiced their full support for the controversial Rwanda deportation scheme, falling over themselves to be seen as the most hard-line on border crossings. The programme has been deplored by refugee charities and others across the sector.

Closer to home, Truss drew criticism from the trans community over her stance on self-identification for trans people when she was equalities minister, and she pushed for government bodies to withdraw from Stonewall ’s diversity champions programme.

In an edict last month, Sunak declared that as PM he would “audit” charities in order to “weed out” those that promote extremism. “There have been too many examples of publicly-funded charities and organisations accused of promoting extremist ideology in the UK,” the statement from his campaign team read.

During his time as chancellor, Sunak pledged billions to the levelling-up agenda, which charities hoped would make use of their local expertise and networks. Yet, his spring statement this year was met with frustration by the sector, with Centrepoint calling it a “missed opportunity” and Mencap branding it “bitterly disappointing”.

Both candidates are ideologically wedded to a smaller state and both promise tax cuts, though Truss’s ambitions here go much further, much faster. But charities that rely at least partly on government funding will likely be eyeing the future with apprehension, whoever wins the race. If you thought austerity was over, think again.

And do we really think that calls from the sector for the government to treat the energy and cost-of-living crisis as an emergency at least as serious as the pandemic, and provide a similar level of support for charities, will land anywhere near the top of the new PM’s in-tray? The advice to charities from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in August was to ask their energy supplier if they offer concessionary rates to charities. We have heard nothing, so far, from either candidate about their plans to support those organisations that will, once again, be working at their limits to help people in crisis.

That said, we are now hearing that an emergency budget may be announced this month, so we will see if, and how, charities fare in that. It would be a wonderful surprise were the new PM to use their first few days in office to send a clear signal that they recognise the vital role that charities play in delivering quality public services and, when it really matters, in preventing the most vulnerable in society from falling through the cracks.

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