If the Compact remains “Pickled”, how should the sector respond?

In Summary::

– The Compact between HMG and civil society was broken seriously by Eric Pickles shortly before the General Election

– It is therefore no good pretending that the Compact is “alive and well”, even though lots of good activities encouraged by the Compact continue

– If the Compact is to survive under the new Government, and play its part in One Nation approaches to our country’s future, it must be un-Pickled

– If the Government will not un-Pickle the Compact, the sector should declare the Compact broken and find other ways to achieve and promote good working relationships with Government and its agencies where possible

– The sector should be confident and stand firm.

 In my last blog I asked new Ministers and the voluntary sector’s key umbrella bodies if the Compact is dead. The reason for doing so was that a couple of months before the General Election, Eric Pickles announced his policy decision that any voluntary organisation receiving money from his Department would, in its grant conditions, be forbidden from using that money to influence Government or its agencies or regulators in any way. He expressed the hope that other Whitehall Departments would follow suit. The current situation is, I am  informed, that the new policy is being written into grant agreements by Mr Pickles former Department (DCLG) and DEFRA are showing signs of following suit. Pickles’ policy decision contravened article 1.1 of the Compact signed by the Prime MInister in 2010: this was a Government undertaking to:

“1.1 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.”

My blog elicited a response from Paul Winyard of Compact Voice, which represents civil society in its relationship with the Government to support and follow up the Compact. It seems to be paid for mainly by a grant from the Cabinet Office and is based in the NCVO. Paul’s response to my question “Is the Compact dead?” was: “I can assure you that the Compact is indeed alive and kicking”. He illustrated this by referring to examples of good practice on the Compact Voice website and to continuing requests for help from local bodies and voluntary sector partners in refreshing their local Compacts. Having said that, he recognised that there was a “tension” between the Compact and what he termed Mr Pickles’ “proposal” and declared that the principle of a voluntary organisation’s independence and right to campaign “must be upheld”.

We can all recognise the very difficult position that Compact Voice is placed in when the Government breaches a significant part of the Agreement on which their work, Cabinet Office grant and jobs are based. Taking that into account, I must disagree with Paul on these points:

1. Pickles’ publicly trumpeted decision was not a “proposal”, it was a policy decision. Another Minister is free to make a different decision and thus un-Pickle the Compact.

2. Pickles’ decision was not just in tension with the Compact, it breached a signed Agreement.

3. As a signed Agreement between HMG and civil society, the Compact is not alive and well, because it has been seriously breached. Its status is: “Broken”. What is alive and well is something different: the many working relationships that persist in the spirit of the Compact up and down the country and the valuable assistance and guidance given by the Compact Voice team.

The part of the Compact broken by Pickles was not a technicality but, as Compact Voice correctly acknowledges, “a principle that must be upheld”. Government is not obliged to fund a voluntary organisation of which it disapproves, but if they do choose to fund one they must recognise that they cannot buy silence, because a voluntary organisation is independent of Government and has the right to use its voice for its beneficiaries. That is a fundamental basis for effective working that recognises that The Man in Whitehall does not always know best; there is much to learn from the grass roots knowledge of organisations working with people from whom Whitehall may be remote, just as voluntary organisations may have plenty to learn from those with expertise and wider perspectives in Government. Government money may buy silence from a Government employee (subject to whistleblowing rights and agreements) but not from the voluntary sector. There must be mutual respect, which is incompatible with gagging. That is why, if the Compact is not un-Pickled, it is unacceptable as a written Agreement and must be declared by the sector to be broken and dead.

I have heard one weasel argument that, since organisations gagged so far as Government money is concerned can still use other money to give voice and influence, Pickles was somehow within the spirit or even letter of the Compact. That is not what the Compact, quoted above, said or meant. Moreover, it misses the point of principle. If you buy a voluntary organisation as partner with Government, you buy its voice and its right to use it. Influencing the world in the interests of beneficiaries is the right of an independent organisation and part of what you are buying into. If you don’t like it, find a different partner or agent. And there are no hermetically sealed compartments dividing off “services” from “information-gathering” from “raising knowledge and awareness of real life circumstances and needs ” from “explaining how Government could be more effective” and from “influencing”.

It would be wrong, strategically and tactically, for key civil society bodies to feel they need to soften their words about the Pickling of the Compact. They should not pretend that, as a formal Agreement between HMG and civil society, the Compact is alive and well when in fact the Agreement has just been broken in a fundamental respect. The voluntary sector must always be wise as serpents, but never underestimate its own significance and strength, nor abandon its independent mission. The Prime Minister has committed himself to provide a One Nation style of leadership and Government. For that, and for all that is valuable in the concept of Big Society, Government badly needs the voluntary sector. Its Parliamentary majority is not great. Technocratically and politically, short term and long term, they need the sort of mutual respect, effective working relationships and rules of engagement hammered out over so many years with members of all main political parties and reflected in the un-Pickled Compact. The sector can afford to insist on those principles. In Roosevelt’s words, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

What if the Government were to spread gagging clauses across Whitehall and fail to un-Pickle the Compact? I suggest in that case the sector’s leaders should:

– declare the Compact to be broken and dead as an Agreement between HMG and civil society.

– Insist steadfastly that gagging clauses are unacceptable to the sector.

– Continue to advocate for good practice in working relationships with Government and its agencies, but no longer as part of a Compact Agreement. Find other things to call it and do it in different ways.

– Rally support against gagging clauses across the political spectrum and show a united civil society front.

– Wait for the Government to realise that the costs to it of Pickling far exceed the benefits.

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