A year ago I wrote about the work of an acquaintance of mine, Colin Bloom who had just been appointed as Director of Outreach by the Conservative Party. He was speaking at a round table fringe event at the Conservative party conference organised by ACEVO which is a network of the chief executives of large and very large charities. Colin told those present that “This party is open for business to charities – it’s in our DNA to work collaboratively with you, we are your friends and want to be at peace with the sector.” He explained that he had been hosting meetings at Westminster between charity chief executives and chairs and Conservative MPs and ministers for the past five years, and he intended to continue doing this in his new role as director of outreach. Bloom said he had numerous examples of how this set-up had proved successful for the charities concerned.
It is worth bearing in mind that in order to make a fringe event successful, they need to be held within the security perimeter of the conference, and in order to gain access to this ring of steel usually requires those attending to pay a substantial amount of money just to cover the administrative costs of gaining clearance to the area and also as a premium for being in the same space as MPs and Ministers. If I have understood the website correctly, charities have to pay £600 to attend the conference, but each registered charity is entitled to apply for up to 4 passes. The ACEVO fringe meeting does take place behind the cordon and so those attending are not from small and poorly funded, local charities. I know from my various efforts to tempt MPs and Ministers out of the cordon in conferences taking place in Brighton, that MPs of all parties are unlikely to leave their comfortable surroundings unless the event is really up their street.
If we roll ahead a year to this week, once again ACEVO held a fringe event at the conference. There is no mention of Colins attendance or even if he is still Director of Outreach. However as this report makes clear “Rob Wilson, minister for civil society, was unable to attend the event, which was being held to celebrate the voluntary sector.” This is disappointing as he was mentioned as one of the speakers at the event. However he was not mentioned in last years write up either so one can only assume that his dance card was already full on both occasions or perhaps he does not enjoy parties?. The Charities were left to speak amongst themselves.
- Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo’s, said: “Rob Wilson isn’t here, if he was I would say ‘have confidence, have faith’ in us.”
- Peter Lewis, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising called on the government to provide more strategic support for small charities.
- David McCollough, chief executive of Royal Voluntary Service, said the sector needs to make sure the government listens to it. “We have got to make ourselves heard and make a constructive fuss”.
- Sam Lowe, campaign lead at Friends of the Earth, said it was time for a new relationship between the charity sector and Conservative Party. “With a new Prime Minister it’s time to reset the relationship between the Conservative government and charities, For too long we’ve been seen as at loggerheads”.
The same article also explained that Number Ten has set up a new policy unit to improve relations with charities, faith organisations and businesses. This is a reprise to the days when Tony Blair had a similar arrangement which ended up being called the Office of the Third Sector (a descriptor I personally dislike). Charlotte Lawson, who was previously development and strategic partnerships director at the Centre for Social Justice which is the think tanks set up by Iain Duncan Smith, joined the new government relations team last week as a special adviser to lead on the “development of the government’s relationships with the voluntary sector”. She is one of number of staff appointed by Number Ten to improve relations with key groups. Karl Wilding, director of public policy at NCVO, said he was encouraged by the new initiative. “It’s based in Number Ten so it has the imprimatur of the Prime Minister on it,” he said. “This seems to me to be part of the social reform agenda that May made a big deal of when she first came to office. We welcome this new interest from the Prime Minister.
When Blair first began his attempt to woo charities I was very encouraged, and it did create a positive environment amongst charities I was involved in. However after a few years the clear sense that Governments speak but don’t (or perhaps won’t) listen emerged. The same was true in the days of Gordon Brown and then Cameron. However the actions of this Government through disgraceful attempts to silence charities such as through the Lobbying Bill which Theresa May voted for mean that things are very different now. I wish Charlotte Lawson well, but I don’t expect that next years conference will be any different to this and when the icing is picked off Theresa May’s cake, the same solid immovable lump of Governments know best will return to the centre of the party, impossible to cut and in any case inedible to those who can afford the £600 to attend.