Lightening the load - Sir Stuart Etherington on the Civil Society Red Tape Task Force

04 Jul 2011 Voices

Sir Stuart Etherington applauds the ideas from the Red Tape Task Force, but worries about delivery.

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of NCVO

Sir Stuart Etherington applauds the ideas from the Red Tape Task Force, but worries about delivery.

When last summer the government announced the creation of a task force aimed at reducing the regulatory and bureaucratic burden faced by voluntary organisations, the most common reaction was an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Although this latest effort was presented as part of building the ‘Big Society’, and the focus was to make it easier for civil society organisations (CSOs) to provide public services, deregulation has been a policy objective of government since 1979. So many of us fought back to the similar attempts previously made by both Labour and Conservative administrations.

New impetus

However, the Red Tape Task Force represents a new impetus in the drive towards greater efficiency and reducing the countless rules that put people off giving their time and money to good causes, and stifle the work of CSOs. The resulting report is to be applauded for making an important contribution to the debate on how we balance appropriate risk-taking with the government’s duty to regulate. For too long, onerous requirements have diverted charitable resources into bureaucracy and away from delivery.

This initiative gives us an important new opportunity to improve the system, by streamlining and modernising the regulatory framework while maintaining or even improving its outcomes.

Many of the recommendations build on earlier work, such as those highlighting the need to eliminate regulatory duplication and repeated requests for the same information in slightly different formats. If implemented, these reforms would cut a swathe through the disproportionate, often duplicatory bureaucracy that causes so many problems in the day-to-day work of our CSOs. They would significantly lighten the load, especially for smaller charities.

I am particularly keen on the idea of establishing a Store committee (see Lord Hodgson’s article). It can be easy to give in to short-term political or public pressure to address an individual event, without considering whether existing legislation is already sufficient. This mechanism would be key in the development of strategicallyminded, proportionate regulation.

Lord Hodgson has also considered very carefully how the recommendations can help charities respond most effectively to the challenges and opportunities ahead. The call to government to address the issue of charities being unable to recover VAT on shared services is particularly welcome, as this currently presents a sizeable obstacle to effective collaboration. Giving charities the incentive to work together would really help many organisations to maximise their resources in these tough economic times.

I am also very supportive of the recommendations aimed at making it easier for people to give their time to the causes they believe in.

Clarifying liability

The British public have an admirable and deep-seated appetite for dedicating themselves to helping others, but having to jump through multiple regulatory hoops in order to volunteer can often put paid to the best of intentions. Steps to clarify the extent of charity trustee and volunteer liability are timely and will play a great part in encouraging more involvement and participation.

However, many within the sector have given a rather lukewarm reaction to the task force report. They argue that past experience suggests that any further action will limit itself to ‘tinkering at the edges’, because there is never enough political will and parliamentary time to push through the legislative changes that are necessary to really make a difference.

I agree that many of the recommendations will require continuing commitment to reform, not only from government but also the private and the voluntary and community sector. Government has already given a strong indication that this is an agenda which it is determined to deliver, and it has responsibility to drive the necessary action in order to implement the recommendations. For our part, we must all continue to provide the drive for change, and make sure history does not repeat itself. 

Sir Stuart Etherington is chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO)

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