Politicians from all parties have been holding back on discussing their important charity policies during this election campaign as they were waiting for the right moment (and definitely not because no-one has bothered to think up any). That moment could have been last night at the Charity Debate organised by the Charities Aid Foundation and NCVO.
Only two of the five spokespeople debating last night (Vicky Foxcroft for the Labour Party and Caroline Russell for the Green Party) are actually standing for election during the campaign. Baroness Barran for the Tories and Baroness Barker for the Liberal Democrats both sit the in the House of Lords and Matthew Patten for the Brexit Party had planned to stand until his boss, Nigel Farage, decided not to contest seats won by the Conservatives in 2017. It’s hard to know what this says about the state of UK politics and the value given to the charity sector.
Nevertheless, all candidates gamely opened by praising the work of the sector, acknowledging its value and generally sucking up to the audience.
Barker empathised with those annoyed that the sector has been “overlooked” during the campaign (and some might argue for quite some time before that). Foxcroft promised that Labour would be “radical” and that it would abolish the Lobbying Act. Barran emphasised that the Tories are committed to the Civil Society Strategy, which was developed two ministers ago.
But, in a seemingly unlikely twist, it was the Brexit representative, Patten, who won the audience over by not only demonstrating a cogent understanding of the challenges facing charities but making a raft of suggestions that hardly anyone could argue with: giving more power to communities; investing in regions outside of London; moving the charities minister back to the Cabinet Office and maybe even promoting them; reviewing the remit of the Charity Commission; and changing the tax rules to incentivise funding for the sector.
I should point out that Patten is sort of cheating here. Before turning to politics he was a big cheese in the charity sector; he was chief executive of the Mayor’s Fund for London between 2012 and 2018 and has held various other roles in charities.
Anyway, heads were nodding all around, and if the audience had been given on of those electronic buttons that they could hit to indicate approval, everyone would have been furiously hitting the Brexit one. Proof if anyone needed it that the “lefty remoaners” who make up chunks of the sector are open to new ideas, especially ones that are similar to their old ideas.
No policy surprises
For at least the first half, there was an honourable attempt at answering some real questions from the audience. Sadly for headline writers this yielded few surprises.
Everyone said what they were supposed to say about Brexit. The Greens and LibDems think it will be dire for the sector and the Brexit Party thinks it’s a big opportunity.
On the National Citizen Service (the last, incredibly expensive reminder of the Big Society era), opinions ranged from lukewarm (Barran, who said it was “part of” the offer for young people), to the fury from Barker, who has been raising concerns about it for a number of years, and Foxcroft, who would very much like the department responsible to answer her questions about it (the fact that they are stalling doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that all is hunky dory, but we don’t have time to pick apart this issue here).
Perhaps the most honest and telling answer was Russell’s, whose daughter had participated on it.
“I don’t know very much,” she said. “My child took part and got a lot out of it, but it strikes me that it must be very expensive… but I’m not going to blather.”
On the question about small charities, no one said they were a bad thing and the panel all shared a generally warm feeling around the importance of charities, in a way that was unlikely to make them any enemies.
It was all shaping up to be quite an underwhelming evening.
But an hour, it seems, is all politicians can manage before the debate shifts back to Brexit.
Foxcroft was in the process of turning the tables on the sector and telling those assembled that they really ought to sort out their own embarrassingly poor record on diversity, when she was interrupted by Patten who declared the “EU is institutionally racist”.
That certainly got everyone’s attention.
With the wind taken out of her sails, Foxcroft floundered before being rescued by Russell from the Greens, who made the point that a poor level of diversity in the EU is a reason to stay and reform, not to leave. What kind of omen does that send about a potential coalition for 2020?
To diffuse the situation, the chair asked the final “fun” question to politicians, which was: “What kind of charity would you set up?” Answers to this question probably gave more insight into the minds of the representatives than anything else.
After giving it some thought (it is tough going first on this question), Barker said she’d set up something to do with digital and young people.
Foxcroft said she’d like to tackle youth violence. Russell suggested something to help charities, eloquently describing what NCVO and the Small Charites Coalition are already doing. I’m sure that went down well with the organisers. Barran highlighted that she’s already done it once and knows just how exhausting it is, before offering something vague around addressing inequality.
Patten said he would not set up another charity as there are already too many. Thankfully things drew to a close there, because I don’t think there was enough wine or nibbles to get us through the old “too many charities” debate.