Charities may well have the answers to a lot of the issues facing the country, but will anyone in government be listening, asks Kirsty Weakley.
The overall mood from the voluntary sector representatives at the Conservative Party Conference this week was surprisingly optimistic, with many hoping that the new government’s social reform agenda will be an opportunity to reframe the sector’s relationship with the government.
In Theresa May’s closing speech the Prime Minister reiterated her commitment to a social reform agenda, which had been a bit of theme running through the conference. It might not be as good a sound-bite as Big Society, but it may prove to be more effective.
By setting up a new policy unit to improve relations with the, headed by former development and strategic partnerships director at the Centre for Social Justice Charlotte Lawson, Number Ten does appear to have indicated a willingness to listen to the sector.
And for its part the sector seems keen to offer the government solutions to problems instead of unrelenting criticism; even the representative from Friends of the Earth, one of the staunchest critics of the Lobbying Act, who was speaking at Acevo’s civil society rally, said it was time to “reset” the relationship.
Charities were also keen to assure the Conservative Party that the sector is not intrinsically left wing. This comes up again and again, but perhaps with the Conservative leader trying to convince the country that the Labour Party does not have a “monopoly on compassion” the party will find itself less at odds with parts of the voluntary sector.
What role can we expect the minister for civil society to play in all this?
While the sector might have cause for optimism when it comes to the government, the same cannot be said of the minister.
Once again Rob Wilson did not make his presence felt at the conference. He didn’t make it to any of three sector-wide events, despite being down to speak at Acevo’s rally on Sunday night. This meant that there were not high-ranking politicians to hear leaders from the voluntary sector talk eloquently about the need for the voluntary and public sectors to work in partnership.
He did put in a brief appearance the following morning at a private round table hosted by NCVO, though it’s unclear if he made much of contribution.
Wilson, and the Office for Civil Society, have frequently been criticised for their focus on youth volunteering and social investment, at the expense of other areas of sector policy, which was only compounded at this conference. His only appearance at a sector event - one open to all delegates, anyway - was at a youth volunteering event, where he went to great lengths to not make any announcements.
It is perhaps telling that his new boss, Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, mentioned Wilson just once and charities hardly at all.
Interest at fringe events
In contrast to previous years there were a number of fringe events concerned causes close to many parts of the sector such as attitudes to international aid, solving poverty and engaging with local communities.
While it is a good sign that the Conservative Party is talking about these issues they don’t necessarily seem to be looking for the voluntary sector for solutions.
One packed out fringe event, Solving Poverty the Conservative Way, which was hosted by the Spectator and Joseph Rowntree Foundation, barely mentioned the contribution that charities could make.
Most of the discussion centred on the need to build more housing, before a fleeting mention at the end that some more corporate social responsibility, from businesses to support community groups, would also be a good thing.
Other solutions to poverty that came from the floor included limiting the number of children people could have and actually talking to poor people.
At other fringe events related to charities ordinary party members turned up to have a pop at the sector, much to the surprise of some of the voluntary sector regulars. Their complaints seemed based on their own recent bad experience or prejudices.
While it is not helpful to read too much into anecdotal evidence it’s worth noting that there was a clear split in the room between those who think about charity issues all year round, and those who don’t.