Magazine article The Spectator

Set Charities Free

Magazine article The Spectator

Set Charities Free

Article excerpt

For the first time in our history, Britain's charities receive more money from the government than they do from voluntary donations.

This astonishing development has come about for two reasons. First, because the government is increasingly turning to charities to deliver services that were previously performed by public employees. Second, because individual giving is barely keeping pace with rising national income, let alone the increasing government funding. Most charities -- especially smaller charities -- are suffering a drop in donations and are becoming more and more reliant on a generous minority of donors.

The growing reliance of charities on the state, rather than donors, for their funds raises real questions about their independence and financial stability. Last year the Charity Commission raised the alarm. From a survey of 3,800 charities, the official regulator reported that only 26 per cent of charities delivering public services felt fully free to make decisions without pressure to conform to the wishes of their government funders. Furthermore, just 12 per cent of charities said that they are always paid by the government the full cost of providing their public services. In other words, charities are subsidising their work for the public sector from funds raised by voluntary donors.

Yet it would be a foolish government that closed the door to voluntary groups. They are often far more effective in tackling the most intractable problems facing Britain today than the agencies of central government. To get, for example, the long-term unemployed back into work, or an addict permanently off drugs, demands an approach that is creative, local and, above all, personal -- something that remote, impersonal and bureaucratic government agencies struggle to offer.

So government and opposition want to give charities, social enterprises and other voluntary groups a bigger role in the provision of public services. But just because the parties share a common objective, it doesn't mean that they share the same motivation. For Conservatives, the idea of diversity in the delivery of services is in accord with our ideals and instincts, but for Labour the motive is desperation.

When the voters first gave Tony Blair 'an instruction to deliver', he turned to the state to do the job. Gordon Brown put up the money, but the results were disappointing. The spending boom did not deliver the promised improvements. As for the billions pumped into tackling childhood deprivation, drug addiction and long-term unemployment, successive topdown, state-led programmes have failed to make a difference. Labour has found out the hard way that the great clunking fist of government is not the helping hand that vulnerable people actually need.

That is why a Labour government -- a Labour government -- has turned to charity to deliver public services. This different motivation is reflected in a double paradox at the heart of the government's approach to the voluntary sector.

The first paradox is this. Having been attracted to the voluntary sector because it does things differently, the government has too often required the voluntary groups it commissions to operate like a government department. The government specifies in mind-numbing detail exactly how a charity is required to perform services under contract. And, of course, having directed the minutiae of its behaviour, the government will then expect the charity to return endless monitoring reports to confirm that it has not deviated from the approved method.

The opportunity to benefit from the creativity and very difference that voluntary organisations bring is squandered. …

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