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Voluntary Organisations

Volume 701: debated on Monday 12 May 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether their grant-making policy towards individual voluntary organisations is influenced by the significance given to advocacy in their activities.

My Lords, the Government recognise and support the independence of voluntary organisations to advocate for their community and campaign for change, irrespective of any funding relationships that might exist. The Government are also committed to increasing the capacity of voluntary organisations to act independently through, for example, the £130 million Grassroots Grants programme.

My Lords, while I thank my noble friend for that positive reply, and put on record the fact that many of us who are trustees of voluntary organisations and charities welcome the positive and co-operative attitude of the Government towards the work of charities, is he nevertheless aware that the Charity Commission is concerned about perceptions in the voluntary and charitable sector that it is not altogether free from influence? Research recently undertaken by the Charity Commission demonstrated that only 26 per cent of organisations receiving government funding believed that they were totally free of influence in their priority. Because advocacy is such a vital part of furthering the objectives of charities, what can my noble friend and the Government do to reassure charities, and not only this House, that this is not the position of the Government and that the Government are fully behind their advocacy work?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his opening remarks, in which he recognises the progress that the Government have made. As I indicated in my original Answer, we are committed to the independence of voluntary organisations and their ability to carry out the role of advocacy for their communities and causes. It will take time for all charities to recognise the shift in policy that has taken place. It is the job of the Charity Commission to monitor this overall position and to see that it is fulfilled accurately. I have no doubt that it will fulfil these obligations.

My Lords, do the Government also recognise that the independence, effectiveness and value for money of third-sector organisations would be better secured if, when they are dependent upon government grants, they could be core funded for a period of years, rather than having to seek funding annually?

My Lords, I broadly agree with that sentiment, and so do the Government. We are looking towards a time when we are able to see three-year funding of charities, so that the element of independence is thereby enhanced. The noble Lord will appreciate the change in the position of the Charity Commissioners over the past 12 months, and that it takes a little while to work this policy through. The Government are thinking along exactly the lines that the noble Lord suggests.

My Lords, how is the stipulation that initiatives which involve direct lobbying of the British Government are ineligible for DfID’s development awareness fund reconciled with what the Minister said earlier and to the statement by the Cabinet Office Minister that charities should not feel constrained from biting the hand that feeds them?

My Lords, the position is clear. Charities will have their independence protected, whatever the source of their resources. The Government are determined that where they receive grants, they should not feel in any way inhibited from challenging areas of government policy that relate to their work. That is different from pressure-group activity. There is a world of difference between the work of charities seeking objectives within the charitable framework and pressure groups. The Government have a different perspective, as I am sure any serious analyst would, on the role of pressure groups.

My Lords, having spent much of my professional life involved with charities of one kind or another, I confirm the tributes that have been paid to the contributions made by the charitable world to medical research, medical care and many other areas. However, does the Minister agree that something that, from time to time, prejudices decision-making in the charitable sector, is the same issue that has often bedevilled decision-making in certain parts of the National Health Service? I refer to this problem as “decibel management”—he who shouts loudest and longest often tends to win the day. It is not an easy situation to resolve. Does the Minister have any ideas about how that can be overcome?

My Lords, the whole House recognises the very significant role that charities play in the development of medical research and development in this country and the extent to which they supplement the work of the National Health Service. There is always the danger that those with the greatest resources can make the greatest noise but judicious government and the values that obtain in the Medical Research Council, on which the noble Lord served with such distinction for many years and on which I served for three undistinguished years, should obtain throughout government, too.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the report produced last year under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, in which leading charities state that they have great difficulty with the differentiation that the Minister makes between a charity and a pressure group? Does he accept that many prime charities, such as Christian Aid, Oxfam or the RSPCA, sometimes have to act as pressure groups in order to fulfil their charitable role?

My Lords, no one gainsays that—charities often apply hugely important and successful pressure. However, I sought to distinguish between support from the Government in the form of smaller grants to smaller charities to create essential building blocks so that the charities can work effectively in their local communities and the large, well-established charitable foundations that are neither dependent on government for funding nor scared of presenting their case to government.