Andrew Purkis: Are charitable services essential?

16 Apr 2020 Voices

Andrew Purkis looks at how assumptions about charities do not always match today's reality

Are charitable services essential or just desirable? Shouldn't essential services be made statutory and universal by Parliament?

It's an old chestnut. But the assumption that charitable services are nice to have, rather than essential, still shapes attitudes across party political lines and in the media. It is surely one of the reasons why the Treasury's response to the impassioned pleas of charity representatives for a rescue package to save charitable services has been a disappointment to many of us. For charities' efforts to show how essential their services are have hit the buffers of an entrenched assumption about the role of charities since the foundation of the welfare state.

Entrenched assumptions about charitable services

This way of thinking about charities since the foundation of the welfare state - we can call it the conventional model - is that the work of charities generally is a boon to society, hence justifying the privileges of charitable status - but not essential in the same sense as universal state services. 

The defining characteristic of charities is that they are independent, not part of government nor dependent on it, being born of inherently variable volunteer effort and charitable donations. Reflecting that character, the services they provide, (unless they are delivering state services as contractors), exist only in some places, often the more fortunate ones, as New Philanthropy Capital have recently demonstrated. 

This conventional model assumes that once Parliament deems a service to be essential, it will legislate for it as a comprehensive, state-sponsored service. Indeed, historically, one of the achievements of the charitable sector has been to pilot and demonstrate the efficacy of particular services, which Parliament has then decided should be for everyone, no longer dependent on the vagaries of charitable funding and volunteers.

And of course it is not a tenable proposition that every charity, even every charity with staff, is providing an essential service. For a start, many charities are trying to change the world rather than provide basic services - whether to advance human rights, to protect the environment, to eliminate poverty or pursue other charitable objects through influencing awareness and collective decision-making.  

Nor can the services provided by a great number of charities be seen an essential in the same way as the NHS or state schools or the police or the armed services. To take just one example, charities for the advancement of religion (a big chunk of our sector) may be seen as core to the identity, motivation and lives of their adherents - but not necessarily to many others who are not religious. Some people are animal lovers, or keen ramblers, others aren't. A large number of charities are like that: many people can do without them, even if they happen to be available where they live. That shapes much government, political and public reaction when charities ask for emergency help.

But assumptions that charitable services are inessential and 'nice to have' are no longer realistic

There are, however, two serious problems with this conventional model of thinking. One is that fiscal austerity has reinforced a trend that many services, which perhaps most people do regard as essential and should arguably be provided universally, are partly provided by charities instead, as hospital care and schooling used to be. 

Examples have featured strongly in discussion of the Treasury's recent rescue package for charities. One is hospices: much end of life, palliative care is provided by charitable hospices, so that the NHS funds only a third or so of the cost and the rest is provided by charitable fundraising. Another is provision for victims of domestic abuse, now understood to be a very widespread phenomenon in every location but heavily dependent on voluntary provision in key dimensions. Another is advice services for citizens struggling to find their way around the system in a bewildering world of change. And there are food banks: eloquent witnesses that so-called universal and essential state social security is failing to enable citizens to put food on their tables.

In another dimension, many charities find themselves subsidising from charitable funds the services commissioned from them by the state - so without charitable support the services deemed essential by Parliament would either disappear or become even less effective than they are now. 

In all these ways, charities have increasingly been drawn into shoring up what are supposed to be essential state services. And new services that might deserve to be regarded as essential have increasingly not been recognised and “promoted” by Parliament to the status of universal provision, as should happen according to the conventional model.

And definitions of essential services are contested

A second problem is that the definition of “essential” or “vital” services is contested and difficult. That is why Parliament's view has changed over time as society's attitudes and understanding change. 

There is in reality a spectrum of desirability, not a clear boundary between “essential” and “nice to have”. So the conventional model is too rigid. Is the preventive and public health work, and accident prevention, carried out by many charities - and undoubtedly saving the Exchequer substantial sums in the long run - “essential”?

Is the work done with refugees and asylum-seekers “essential”? What about community transport, on which so many vulnerable people depend for (for example) hospital visits? What about all the respite and support work with carers? Or with marginalised groups with intractable problems such as drug abuse, alcoholism, rough sleeping, children excluded from school? What of all the work with children and young people vulnerable to crime and abuse or with serious disabilities? 

Just because many aspects of these charitable services are not statutory, are we to say they are not essential to our society? What about the Samaritans, lending an ear to people who are contemplating suicide - just nice to have?

So official assumptions about charitable services no longer reflect reality

And herein lies a core problem with which charities are struggling as they plead for more government support. The conventional model still exerts powerful influence in Westminster, Whitehall and the media, with its crude assumption that charitable services are nice to have but not essential. It is the more powerful because, as we have already noted in the case of many charitable services in our endlessly diverse sector, that is true.  It is also powerful because many politicians and others believe for various reasons that charitable endeavour should be nice to have rather than meeting essential requirements for which the state should provide. Yet the reality in many cases is different, because charities fund as well as deliver many services which are already, or arguably should be, state-funded services. In all their diversity, charitable services are spread right along the spectrum of essential/nice to have, with increasing numbers, thanks to austerity, clustered towards the indispensable end.

Big questions for the future

The most urgent requirement is for ministers and parliamentarians, and the media, to recognise that the conventional assumptions they would like to make about charitable services are often no longer valid. Please get real: charities are shoring up and providing essential services, and many others that are immensely important to the most vulnerable members of society. That's why they must be supported by government in an emergency.

And as we think about shaping the settlement and social contract of the nation post Covid-19 and mindful of the shaming inequalities that have been on view, we must address which services should be regarded as essential, not just nice to have, and how they are to be planned and funded as universal and reliable for all who need them. For such services, limping along in some places, but not others, with variable charitable support, is not a good enough response to the suffering and sacrifices that the people are now going though.

Andrew Purkis a trustee of Directory of Social Change. He has been chair or vice chair of six UK charities, and chief executive of others and was a board member of the Charity Commission, 2006-2010 

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