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Bert Massie: We need a new Compact which is legally binding

24 Oct 2014 Voices

Bert Massie looks at the Compact, the agreement between the government and the voluntary and community sector. This article is part of a series on the future of the voluntary sector being published by Civil Society News ahead of the publication of  a collection of essays by Civil Exchange.

Bert Massie looks at the Compact, the agreement between the government and the voluntary and community sector.

Around two decades ago, the Deakin Commission made a recommendation that “a ‘concordat’ be drawn up between representatives of the government and the sector, laying down basic principles for future relations.” The Labour Party was thinking on similar lines and when it came to power in 1997 it supported the development of that document - the Compact.

But now two of the principles on which the Compact is based - the agreement of government to allow time to consult the voluntary sector, and to recognise that the sector has a right to campaign - have been so undermined that a new structure to support the Compact is required.

The Compact was a short document with detailed policies in separate Codes of Practice. It set out principles and commitments which would underpin everything else. It recognised that "in the development and delivery of public policy and services, the government and the voluntary sector has distinct but complimentary roles.”

Paragraph 9.1 commits the government "to recognise and support the independence of the sector, including its right within the law, to campaign, to comment on government policy, and to challenge the policy, irrespective of any funding relationship that might exist and to determine and manage its own affairs.”

The document was largely based on mutual respect and it was assumed that disputes could be resolved amicably. But it was a mixed picture and eventually a Commission for the Compact was established to support it. The Commission was without any powers and was abolished in 2011.

The Compact was refreshed in 2009 and became a single short document. A year later the incoming Cameron government rewrote it. This stressed the role of voluntary organisations as sub-contractors in the delivery of services.

It did however still contain commitments to consult and retained the  idea that a 12 week time span was the right consultation period. It also stated the government will "Respect and uphold the independence of Civil Society Organisations to deliver their mission, including their right to campaign”.

At the end of 2013 Compact Voice, which was then responsible for the Compact, and other organisations wrote to the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, illustrating a number of occasions in which the government had failed to adhere to the 12 week consultation timeframe.

For example, it is hard to believe that the Spare Room Subsidy, or Bedroom Tax, would have been introduced had expert voluntary organisations been invited to advise the government on its disastrous consequences. The evidence suggests the government does not feel obliged to follow the Compact.

Criticism of a policy is interpreted as criticism of the government and therefore a political act that contravenes charity law. This distorted logic is increasingly used by the government to argue that it is the job of charities to provide services and not to engage in policy disputes with the elected government. Rather than defend its policies and address the issues the government seeks to eradicate criticism by attacking the critic. However, as far as the Compact is concerned, the recognition that charities have a legal right to campaign is being undermined.

When Oxfam produced a Twitter post drawing attention to the effects of austerity measures on poorer people in the UK under the heading “A Perfect Storm” the reaction was immediate. Oxfam were condemned for being too political and reported by a Conservative MP to the Charity Commission. The Trussell Trust, which supports food banks throughout the country, faced severe criticism from the DWP for suggesting that social security changes resulted in some people using food banks. The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, will impose further restrictions on the ability of charities to represent the views of their members.

One consequence of this attack on the independence of charities is that some charities have taken the message to heart and no longer seek to assert themselves but impose a degree of self-censorship. While this is understandable it is also sinister and suggests that the mutual respect between government and the voluntary sector promoted by the Compact is in tatters.

The government is failing to honour its commitment to consult the voluntary sector when preparing policy and is doing its utmost to ensure that the right of the voluntary sector to campaign against harmful policies is increasingly diminished. Two of the core principles of the Compact are thus undermined. It is surely time to fill the veins of the Compact with a transfusion of new blood.

A new Compact should be written and its principles enshrined in law. It should be supported by a new state funded agency to promote and enforce it. This agency must be independent and accountable directly to Parliament so it is free of the politics of the voluntary sector and the current whims of ministers.