Two tribes - when male panelists meet female campaigners

17 May 2012 Voices

Men may have ruled the political panel, but women packed the punches from the audience in the Civil Society Question Time debate, says Niki May Young.

Men may have ruled the political panel, but women packed the punches from the audience in the Civil Society Question Time debate, says Niki May Young.

What do you do when one of the headliners from your ground-breaking debate decides to have a baby instead of attend your event? Panic, that's what, consider crying for a moment, then take a breath and get into action stations.

We can't blame Nick Hurd for backing out of the debate yesterday - family, of course, must come first. But we did consider knocking him down a line or two in the Christmas card list when we realised the possible implications. Do we cancel the event? Do we carry on without a replacement?

No, we thought, the show must go on, but we must make it fair. So on we went seeking a stand-in. Fully aware that whoever would take his place would have approximately three hours to get to grips with what we were going to put them through - a two-hour debate on what the coalition government has achieved so far for the charity sector - we thought it only fair to accept not one but two senior figures to cover the full range of issues expected. We have to say a massive THANK YOU to Lords Hodgson and Wallace for rising to the challenge.

Thankful for the small miracle of filling Hurd's big shoes, we were then confronted by the law of unintended consequences, which presented us with a new challenge - we now had a panel of not four white middle-aged men, but five. As our Mind the Gap investigation would suggest, it was almost inevitable. It just so happens that the senior governmental figures representing the sector are white, middle-aged men. But it didn't stop one eagle-eyed observer tweeting: "#csqt interesting discussions on evolving state/civil soc relations... next debate, could we have an all female panel for a change?"

Alas, I agree! It's plain annoying that there's not more females in these roles. But boy was I heartened by the audience, almost exactly 50 per cent female, who participated with passion. And those female representatives held the panel to account on the issues that matter to the sector with particularly fiery delivery. 

Peter Hepburn, chief executive of Cats Protection, praised Daniela Barone Soares in a tweet for making the "best point" of the debate - that if the government cap on giving is an anti-fraud measure then a zero tolerance approach should/would be enforced, not the 25 per cent as proposed under the new tax relief cap rules.  

Lesley-Anne Alexander, Acevo chair and chief executive of RNIB, was all over the debate, tweeting fervently and confronting the panel with the assertion that payment-by-results shouldn't be an excuse to offload risk on to civil society.

Lesley-Anne's efforts were matched by a series of female audience members who posed the difficult questions to make the men sweat. Su Sayer stood up for the little guy (or gal) by questioning the ability of payment-by-results public service contracts to benefit small charities, a sentiment accepted unanimously by the panel as an area that must be addressed. Debra Allcock-Tyler used her opportunity to not only quiz the panel on whether cutting funding to the Charity Commission was a "huge mistake", but also to remind the crowd that Labour "stole" £425m from the Big Lottery Fund and the coalition should give it back.

The next female to pack a powerful punch was Caron Bradshaw, chief executive of Charity Finance Group, who commented that charities are an "afterthought" in policymaking and must become a "forethought". 

It was refreshing to witness such a heartfelt debate. It's the strength of feeling from within the sector that keeps it pushing forward for change. Perhaps one day this same passion will see a more gender-equal representation for the sector in government. Maybe we could start with a female stand-in for Nick while he's on paternity leave?



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