Sector representatives have reacted generally positively to various agreements reached by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats following their initial negotiations to form a government.
Perhaps the most encouraging signal from the two parties to the sector was contained in the section on political reform, where they pledged: “The parties will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups. This will include a full review of local government finance.”
However, the sector seemed to have been forgotten entirely in preparations for the next Spending Review. The first line under that section reads: “The parties agree that a full spending review should be held, reporting this autumn, following a fully consultative process involving all tiers of government and the private sector.”
Statutory register of lobbyists
Within the same section, the parties agreed to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists – a goal that a number of charities have campaigned for.
Following a lengthy inquiry into lobbying during the summer of 2008, during which Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International and Greenpeace all gave evidence, the Public Administration Select Committee recommended that the government establish a statutory register of lobbyists, a public record of meetings between parliamentarians and lobbyists.
But the Labour government said no, preferring industry self-regulation.
However, the register now looks set to go ahead. The agreement states: “The parties will tackle lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists. We also agree to pursue a detailed agreement on lifting donations and reforming party funding in order to remove big money from politics.”
Andy Atkins, executive director at Friends of the Earth, told Civil Society that the commitment to a mandatory register was “a welcome step forward for political reform” but urged the government to see the pledge through quickly.
“David Cameron has said that lobbying is the next big political scandal waiting to happen – he mustn’t let lobbyists derail this move,” he added.
Detention of migrant children
A commitment to end the detention of children for immigration purposes was welcomed by Refugee and Migrant Justice, whose chief executive Caroline Slocock applauded the new government for “recognising the inhumanity of this practice”.
“We hope that this will be implemented immediately and that whatever measures brought in to replace detention will put the welfare and safety of these children first.” She encouraged the government to extend the policy change to migrant children currently imprisoned due to disputes about their age. “In all cases, children should be given the benefit of the doubt,” she said.
Welfare to work
The government said it would end all existing welfare-to-work programmes and replace them with a single programme to help all unemployed people get back into work.
The Shaw Trust, the UK’s biggest charity helping people find work, said the ‘Work Programme’ as it is called, was in the Conservative manifesto and so was expected. Chief executive Sally Burton said: “Much work has been done in recent years to start bringing about better integration of service delivery across welfare to work, social inclusion and mental health issues. The third sector has played an important role in this success and, given the opportunity, can not only continue that support but also be part of new solutions to those facing unemployment, social isolation and deprivation.
“We do know that such solutions will need to be delivered in the context of reduced spending but we know we can help.”
Freedom of Information
However, Thai Children’s Trust chief executive Andrew Scadding issued a warning over a pledge in the section on civil liberties to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, if this meant that charities would be caught in its net.
“Extending FoI beyond the perimeter of government funding would need to be very carefully thought through,” he said. “The law should protect charitable funds from being wasted on answering questions whose answers bring no benefit to the charity or its beneficiaries.
“How would the average fundraising charity, for example, handle requests for information about fundraising expenditure on face to face or telephone fundraising. The answers would be used as a stick to beat us.”
That said, however, Scadding added that a limited FoI extension to those charities that take government money may be “necessary and sensible, if there is any risk under the present legislation that the details of how public money is being spent can be hidden on a technicality”.
“But unless we take public money there is no particular duty to respond to requests for information from anybody else, although many of us choose to as a matter of good practice.”