At the end of a week of manifestos, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on how voluntary sector priorities have fared among the parties’ proposals for government.
Here, I’ve summarised the main parties’ manifesto commitments against the priorities and proposals we set out in NCVO’s manifesto. I’ll also take a look at some other commitments the parties have formalised this week.
Our manifesto, which we created following an extensive consultation process with members, was divided into three sections: how to strengthen the economy and help people find work, how to transform public services, and how to help communities and volunteering flourish.
How to strengthen the economy and help people find work
Charities contribute a lot to supporting the economy, particularly in helping people get back into work. In the manifesto, we profiled projects from Ulverston Mind, the Salvation Army, and Working Chance which boosted people’s skills and confidence.
We made three proposals: prioritise preventative spending, design welfare-to-work programmes to better help people with complex needs, and ensure organisations delivering public service contracts can pay staff a living wage. What did the parties propose?
Labour and the Lib Dems made specific pledges on early intervention. Labour said their health reforms would focus on prevention and early intervention. The Lib Dems had similar commitments, promising to reform NHS tariffs to incentivise preventative action. They also pledged to focus prisons towards rehabilitation. (Volunteer Centre Leeds runs a successful project to reduce reoffending which others could learn much from.) The Conservatives were less explicit but, like the others, pledged better health and social care integration. They also proposed large-scale trials of innovative health services – the voluntary sector would have lots to offer here. NCVO will be showcasing examples of this in our role as managers of a new review of how government works with our sector in health and social care.
Labour and the Lib Dems both propose a replacement for the Work Programme, administered at a more local level. The Lib Dems also propose improving incentives for providers ‘to ensure there is real help for those furthest from the labour market’. This is what was behind our proposal for milestone payments in the Work Programme, to recognise providers who have helped people with complex needs to progress towards employment. The Conservatives want to ‘harness the talent and energy of charities’ in the Work Programme, which is great, but experience so far suggests many charities (and service users) have struggled as a consequence of the Work Programme’s poorly designed payment-by-results structures. Labour and the Tories both promised a cap on overall welfare spending. We’ve previously said that this is a bad idea as it will drive short-term decision-making.
On the Living Wage – both Labour and the Lib Dems propose promoting its use in government contracts, as we suggested. Labour also promise tax rebates to ‘businesses’ which ‘sign up to pay the Living Wage’. Both Conservatives and Lib Dems say that no-one working 30 hours or less a week on the minimum wage would pay income tax.
How to transform public services
We said that any incoming government will need to find ways to make public services more efficient and more responsive in order to avoid a crisis prompted by rising demand. Age UK’s Newquay Pathfinder project, profiled in our manifesto, is a good example of the innovative work needed. Their staff and volunteers help older people with multiple long-term conditions remain independent and stay out of hospital. The project has led to a 25% reduction in emergency admissions, and improved quality of life for its service users.
We said: there should be a review of public service markets to look at barriers to voluntary sector organisations shaping and delivering services, that the government’s Commissioning Academy and procurement training should be extended, and we also proposed the creation of a Centre for Social Value, to help share best practice.
The Conservatives promised to ‘innovate in how we deliver public services, including through getting the voluntary sector more involved’, and to raise the target for SME share of central government spending to one third. The vast majority of charities are SMEs. Labour would ‘create a Small Business Administration’ to ensure contracts are accessible. It would also however embed a principle of the NHS as ‘preferred provider’ in healthcare. We don’t have the detail on this yet but it’s important that this wouldn’t see expert charities locked out of healthcare provision. It’s disappointing not to see more explicit references to social value in the manifestos, though there is a broad recognition of the value that the voluntary sector brings to public services, and a recognition that commissioning and procurement need to improve. We’ll continue to push the importance of the Social Value Act following the election. In our response to the recent Social Value Act review we set out the actions we want the next government to take to ensure public services are not focused on lowest cost and price alone.
Labour and the Tories both propose further transparency. We agree entirely that we need more transparency in public services, and have called for the government to reveal how much funding charities are receiving for delivering public services through both a standardised transparency clause in contracts and reforms to the Contracts Finder website. We just need to be careful that any extension of FOI to voluntary sector providers is designed so it is manageable for them.
How to help communities and volunteering flourish
There are people and communities in the country who feel excluded, isolated or powerless. Supporting social action will help to overcome these barriers and help people to better support each other and take control in their communities. We know that volunteering and community engagement can have a transformative impact for people.
With that in mind, we proposed parties should commit to support volunteering, the creation of a new access to volunteering fund, continuing the match-funding programme to encourage giving via community foundations, making the small donations scheme more accessible, and improving access to social investment for charities.
The most striking proposal here is the Conservatives’ plan to give employees in the public sector and in large businesses three days’ paid volunteering leave. We think it is really important that volunteer programmes are properly resourced and managed, but as we’ve written elsewhere, this could be an excellent way to promote and embed the country’s culture of volunteering.
Labour and the Conservatives express specific support for the Step up to Serve campaign, while the Lib Dems say they will ‘promote social action and volunteering at school, college and university’.
The Conservatives would expand the International and National Citizen Service schemes. They would also expand the Aid Match scheme that matches charitable international development donations with government money.
In a welcome pledge, the Lib Dems say they would ensure ‘charities and social enterprises can access the support and finance they need to further innovate’. The Labour party says it would ‘improve access to finance for cooperative and mutual organisations’. The Conservatives say they would ‘scale up social impact bonds and payment by results’, focusing on youth unemployment, mental health and homelessness. Of course, those mechanisms are not without problems and we will be looking to influence the next government’s first spending review and budget to make sure the voluntary sector gets adequate funding, in the right forms.
The Lobbying Act
Protecting the right of charities to speak out on behalf of the people they work for is an important part of NCVO’s work. The Lobbying Act, which came into power last year, has presented a number of complications for charities looking to campaign on behalf of their beneficiaries. The Labour manifesto proposes repealing the Act, though acknowledges that it would need to be replaced in some way. The Conservatives reaffirm their support for the Act. And the Lib Dems say that they will consider what to do about it based on evidence from Lord Hodgson’s review. This is a sensible proposal. We do need some legislation to ensure parity in election campaigning, and how to account for ‘non-party campaigners’ in that is a delicate balancing act. Simply repealing the act would take us back to the previous situation, which was also not ideal. We should base any changes to the Act on evidence about its impact, so if you feel it has affected you, please do get in touch with us.
Changes to charities
There were a number of proposals that caught our eye because of the way they propose interfering with or changing the nature of charities.
The Conservatives have proposed requiring housing associations to offer their tenants the right to buy their properties. This would be significant government interference in the running of independent charities and make it very difficult for associations to continue playing their role as the main provider of affordable housing for vulnerable people in our country. Current charity rules do not allow charities to dispose of assets for less than their full value as all must be used for charitable objectives. The proposal puts at risk the whole model of housing associations which is built on them having houses as assets to borrow against. If tenants have the right to dispose of these assets, housing associations may become a very risky prospect for mainstream lenders and social investors and not be able to provide social housing for the future.
The Liberal Democrats propose permitting local media to apply for charitable status when they are demonstrating clear public value. There’s an understandable case for this, especially given the role of local media in informing and connecting communities, and the economic pressures local media faces. However it could be tricky in practice – a local paper taking sides in a political dispute would struggle to justify charitable status, for example. Similar issues would arise now as arise for thinktanks – but with the volume of work published by local media, the problems could be intensified. The proposal would likely have the effect of putting charitable local papers in the same position of studied neutrality that broadcasters have to adopt – something they may or may not welcome.
The Labour party, meanwhile, has proposed stripping private schools of charitable status if they don’t ‘form a meaningful partnership’ with a school or schools in the state sector. This would require some rewriting of current charity law and opens up the whole question of what constitutes a charity. The Charity Tribunal has held that it is up to trustees’ discretion how to create sufficient public benefit to justify charitable status. In the case of schools, this could be achieved through such partnerships, but also through sharing facilities and teachers, for example. We would like to see the detail of this proposal to be reassured that this will not constitute political interference in the independence of charities.
While neither the Greens nor Ukip look electorally likely to play a major role in the next government, they both proposed a number of policies that are worth some examination. We’re running out of space here, but Charity Finance Group have bullet points on both the Greens and Ukip, as well as the others.
Whoever forms the next government, we’ll be taking every opportunity to demonstrate to them the value and importance of your work delivering for and speaking up on behalf of your beneficiaries. Please do get in touch if you have any questions or comments.