26th November 2015

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This VSSN Day Seminar took place in Central London on 26 November 2015


Conference Report

By Mike Locke, independent adviser and researcher

Thirty colleagues met for the seminar, chaired by Peter Maple of London South Bank University, to explore whether there was an answer to the question in the sub-title: ‘Has the voluntary sector lost its voice?’

Debra Morris, Professor of Charity Law & Politics at the University of Liverpool, set the scene in her keynote analysing the state of charity law governing political activity by charities.  Her presentation brought home a paradox which ran through the day’s discussion that voluntary organisations’ perceptions and experiences did not necessarily conform to the situation prescribed by law. The law in relation to political activity was loosening, but charities might have censored themselves through fears of breaking the Lobbying Act and consequent reputational damage. Looking ahead though, political activity might be opened up by the case of the Human Dignity Trust: it achieved charitable status by claiming its campaigns were not seeking to change the law but to test law against higher level legislation on human rights.

The next two presentations in the morning set out evidence of how voluntary organisations were losing their voice. Caroline Slocock, Director of Civil Exchange, reported how the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector concluded the sector’s independence was under serious and growing threat. Voluntary organisations were set in an increasingly instrumentalist environment, and smaller organisations working with vulnerable groups in disadvantaged areas were most at risk. Independence of voice had been reduced through loss of capacity, legitimacy, mandate and funding relationships.

Mike Aiken, Visiting Research Fellow in the Co-operatives Research Unit at the Open University, told how the inquiry by the National Coalition of Independent Action (NCIA) found an increasingly hostile environment for voluntary organisations providing welfare services, especially for small and medium-sized bodies, which had lost their voice on behalf of beneficiaries.

In the afternoon, Jonathan Ellis, Head of Policy, Research and Advocacy at the British Red Cross, offered a case-study of how a charity could discover its voice. His organisation had changed Government practice in treatment of refugees. The campaign had a strong evidence-base and focussed on an issue where the Government knew there was a problem and where British Red Cross could put forward a tangible, realistic solution.

Mike Hemmings, York Saint John University, compared how the perceptions of leaders of voluntary organisations had changed over the period from 2004-05 to 2014-15 with changes in the political landscape and increased cuts.

In the final session Karl Wilding, Director of Public Policy at NCVO, urged carefulness about generalisations as whilst the situation was incredibly difficult for some parts of the voluntary sector, it was not for all; three-quarters of voluntary organisations had no financial relationship with government. He reminded the seminar that Lobbying Act was about the spending on, not the content of, campaigns.  The seminar left with the paradox that the campaign against the Lobbying Act might have raised anxieties among voluntary organisations and hence led them to lower their voice during the general election period – more so than the act required.

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Papers presented at event