It has just been announced that Greg Clark is to succeed Eric Pickles at the Department of Communities and Local Government, and Rob Wilson is to remain as Minister of Civil Society under his new boss Matthew Hancock. Here is a question for them both: is the Compact between the Government and Voluntary Sector now officially dead?
A couple of months before the General Election, Eric Pickles announced that he had decided that no voluntary organisation receiving funds from his Department would be allowed to use that money to seek to influence Government or Government agencies or regulators in any way. This new policy would be written into all grant agreements. He complimented the campaigning of the charity Institute for Economic Affairs against “sock puppets”, ie charities using public money to seek to influence public policy in favour of their own ideas and interests. Pickles hoped this would blaze the trail right across Whitehall. It appears that DEFRA might be following suit.
In 2010, David Cameron had publicly praised and signed the Government’s Compact Agreement with the voluntary sector, affirmed as the agreed guidelines by which Government and sector would work together for the common good. This was a refreshed version of a document into which both Government and voluntary organisations, especially umbrella ones, had put enormous effort over the years, to put their mutual understanding and working relationships onto a robust footing. Number one on the agreed list of objectives in 2010 was “A strong, diverse and independent civil society”. And number one on the list of Government explicit “undertakings” to secure that aim was to “Respect and uphold the independence of CSOs to deliver their mission, including their right to campaign, regardless of any relationship, financial or otherwise, which may exist.”
Thus, Eric Pickles spectacularly reneged on the Government’s undertaking and smashed the first pillar of the Compact.
Perhaps because this happened in the pre-Election period, there was a generally muted public reaction from some of the key voluntary sector bodies (however vigorous their representations behind the scenes), with the notable exception of Steve Bubb of ACEVO, and no squeak publicly from the Office of the Minister for Civil Society or the Cabinet Office, who bore prime responsibility for the Compact within Government. But now the Election is over, the sector has to know whether the Compact is still officially approved at the highest levels of Government as the healthy basis for Government/civil society relations, or whether the fundamental blow struck by Eric Pickles will be allowed to stand, leaving the Compact dead and buried.
New Cabinet Office Ministers Matthew Hancock and Rob Wilson; Greg Clark at DCLG, Liz Truss at DEFRA: will you reverse or bury the Eric Pickles “Whitehall knows best” gagging policy and restore the Compact as signed off by David Cameron? To junk the Compact does not seem a promising start to a One Nation approach.
NCVO and ACEVO: will you now let the sector know where we stand on the Compact: is it still alive and kicking, if it is half-dead can it be restored, and if not what is the relationship with Government to be based on instead?