As the snap 8 June 2017 election draws near, and with Brexit front of mind, the recently published main party manifestos are perhaps not surprisingly light on content about the potential for the charity sector to offer solutions, despite the importance of charities to the economy and job creation.
Commitment to the aid budget
Perhaps most striking is the fact that all the main parties have committed to maintain the spend of 0.7% of gross national income on assistance to developing nations and international emergencies (except the Green party which wants to raise it to 1%). Given the relative unpopularity of this pledge amongst the electorate, and the wide allegations of wasteful spending on contractors and ill-conceived projects, it’s interesting to see this commitment unchanged across the board.
Additionally, both the Conservatives and Labour commit to aligning the aid budget with the sustainable development goals, which is surely a no brainer. There are also broad commitments from all parties to increase funding of UK-led medical and technical research which could help find solutions to support global health.
Charities as only part of the solution
For the Conservatives, there is a focus on charities’ role in reforming asylum procedures. Indeed, all parties make commitments to refugees and asylum seekers. The Conservatives also pledge to increase mental health support (as does Labour).
The Conservatives plan to push back the date at which the UK’s deficit is cleared by several years, which should in theory give charities more time to adapt to cuts in public spending. However, as with all parties, the pledges to increase spending in the areas of health and education will have to be found from somewhere, and further cuts could therefore be made to charitable funding.
Similarly, charities will need to be cautious that a new government does not expand its income by scrapping valuable tax reliefs or by reneging on business rate relief to charities worth some £1.5bn each year.
There is also reference in the Conservative manifesto, to civil society being part of the Commission on Countering Extremism. There is obvious concern about charities being infiltrated by extremists, but we should also be cautious that this doesn’t lead to further negative headlines about problems in charities.
The Tories also propose to create a UK Shared Prosperity Fund taking money from the EU and reinvesting it back in the UK. Labour also supports reducing inequalities in the regions and for Government departments and agencies to be relocated outside of London. So whatever the outcome of the 8 June election, we are all going to be asked to do more to ensure that resources are redistributed effectively outside of London.
Charitable status and education
If the Conservatives are elected, at least 100 of the country’s leading independent schools will be forced to sponsor a state school or risk losing their charitable status, with the party “keeping open the option of changing the tax status of independent schools if progress is not made”.
Interestingly, this was a key part of the last Labour manifesto in 2015 where the party was keen to shred private schools of their charitable status if they didn’t actively pursue meaningful partnerships with schools in the state sector. I am broadly supportive of this measure, and whilst not wanting to see undue political interference in charitable activity, in my view, many private schools (and Universities) do not take their commitment to their charitable status seriously enough. Some added scrutiny and ‘active change’ would be beneficial.
Social Enterprise and the Social Value Act
The role of social enterprise seems to have gone by the wayside completely since the 2015 manifestos which all made broad commitments to support the growth of social enterprise. Social Enterprise is not mentioned at all in either the Conservative or Labour manifestos, perhaps as a realization that many social enterprises are simply not equipped to deliver quickly and at scale.
The Liberal Democrats go further, vowing to support social investment, ensuring that charities and social enterprises can access the support and finance that they need to strengthen their governance and deliver innovative, sustainable solutions to challenges in their communities.
Similarly, they recognise the potential for social enterprises to support the delivery of community and mental health services and that a diverse economy will also rely on encouraging alternative models such as mutual, social enterprises and community-interest companies, not just privately-owned enterprise.
Where Labour does put its weight, is to ensure “best standards on government contracts” and protecting workers rights. For charities, which receive £12.4bn in contracts each year, this could have positive implications if it leads to strengthening of legislation such as the Social Value Act.
However, a Labour Government would also mean that the cost of operating as a charity would increase through the introduction of £10 minimum wage, which is more than the £9 an hour that it is expected to reach by 2020. Including taxes and pensions, this could increase the cost of an employee on the minimum wage by around £2260 per year. This would be a significant cost increase that would surely impact negatively on under-resourced charities.
Not surprisingly, the Labour party vows to safeguard our democracy by repealing the Lobbying Act which they say has disengaged charities, and to introduce a tougher statutory register of lobbyists.
It is absolutely true that charities face a range of difficulties in lobbying with this legislation in place, not helped by the statement by the Electoral Commission last month that said that charities must declare any work that could be deemed political over the past 12 months to ensure that they are not in breach of the Lobbying Act. This is without charities even knowing that a snap election was on the way (!) rather farcical. However, the Electoral Commission has announced that the regulated period came into force retrospectively – and therefore started in June last year. How can any charity have a proper voice in this sort of culture?
Interestingly there is no renewed commitment from the Conservatives to support young people’s volunteering through the National Citizen Service, which is rather strange since the organisation was recently granted a Royal Charter allowing it to more easily receive Government grants. From my perspective, this is a good omission (not least following the damning report of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in March 2017). It is difficult to really feel the impact of this sort of initiatives against the vast expenditure entailed, and given the uncertainty in the economy it would surely be better to focus on job creation for young people as a more immediate priority.
However, perhaps more disappointing, is that the Conservatives seem to have withdrawn on the promising 2015 pledge to encourage a workplace entitlement to paid volunteering leave for three days a year for those working in large companies or the public sector. This could have made a real difference in changing the culture about investing talent back into communities, and it’s a real shame not to see it represented in the Manifesto. Such legislation would be a quick win for any government, and could make a huge difference to the charity sector as a whole.
Perhaps the most radical measure is the pledge by Labour to introduce a £1 billion Cultural Capital Fund to upgrade the existing cultural and creative infrastructure to be ready for the digital age and to invest in creative clusters across the country, based on a similar model to enterprise zones. Administered by Arts Council England, the fund would be amongst the biggest arts infrastructure funds ever.
Labour will also maintain free entry to museums and will introduce an arts pupil premium to every primary school in England (£160m investment into schools per year) as well as maintaining arts provision in the EBacc and creative careers advice. Labour also vows to end cuts to local authority budgets to support the provision of libraries, museums and galleries and to widen the reach of the extensive Government Art Collection so that more people can enjoy it.
The Tories similarly, pledge to maintain free entry to the permanent collections of the major national museums and galleries.
Obviously, for this lucky sector, those measures would be incredibly strong in supporting organisational resilience.
Perhaps most telling of all is the omission of Theresa May’s promise of a ‘shared society’ following a January 2017 speech to the Charity Commission. So from a Conservative perspective we’ve lost the doomed Big Society and now the potential of a Shared Society, let’s hope that the Charity sector can bounce back post election to be the significant player in civil society that we would all expect, whatever the colour of Government that emerges.