HCT Group chair and Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate Sir Vince Cable has urged charities to use the opportunity of the coming election to take their concerns to candidates to try to “get the sector’s interests protected”.
Speaking before the Charity Governance Awards at Clothworkers’ Hall last night, Cable said that one of the upsides to losing his Twickenham seat in the 2015 election was that he has been able to boost his understanding of the charitable sector.
He admitted that, “like a lot of politicians”, he previously “paid lip service to what a wonderful job charities do”. But since joining the board of HCT, which he described as “probably the UK’s biggest social enterprise”, he had become aware that many organisations in the charity sector possessed “this remarkable combination of idealism and social purpose, but are also very businesslike and very clear and competent in their management of resources”.
In his role as chair he had come to understand “why governance matters”, he said.
“We are all familiar with the people at the front face of charities – I’ve only just realised there are 14 million people in Britain who volunteer for charitable work - but the people in the background who do the unsung work sitting on boards and committees are just as important, because when something goes wrong, as it occasionally does, the reputation of the whole sector is damaged.”
He said governing a charity was “quite a subtle task” – supporting and motivating the executive while also holding them to account, being ambitious but not overambitious, making sure the numbers add up and ensuring high standards of safeguarding when working with vulnerable beneficiaries.
Cable went on to encourage charities to use the election to raise sector issues with politicians and candidates.
“I would hope that some of the politicians and candidates you are in touch with are alerted to some of the challenges the charity sector faces, because some of them are quite big.”
He named as key issues the apprenticeship levy, the potential loss of business rates exemption and the proposed requirement to file quarterly tax returns with HMRC online.
“I know a lot of charities are seriously worried about the apprenticeship levy, they can’t use it themselves and are worried the money is not going to come back to other charities but will go to the commercial sector. That is a big battle to be fought.
“I am also a great fan, and did encourage while in government the idea that local government could use its own business rates, but under the present system unless there are proper safeguards the charitable sector is really going to be squeezed hard through the business rates system. I think somebody has calculated a potential cost of £400m a year to charities, unless we are very careful to have exemptions.
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“Similarly, we all want to see an end to tax avoidance but I think many of you are now caught in digital tax reporting – trading arms of charities are not exempted, so you are caught up in the vast HMRC bureaucracy.
“These are the things the politicians have got to help you with and I would hope that the profile that this general election offers, gives you the opportunity to get through to MPs and candidates and try to make sure the sector’s interests are protected.”