Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Our Second-Rate Third Sector? Charity in the Age of Austerity

9 Mar 2015

As someone who has been involved in church activities for over 40 years I should have known the ninth Beatitude: “Blessed is s/he that doth not immediately refuse to volunteer, for s/he will be lumbered with doing it”!  But this week, as a result of forgetting the golden rule – that one should keep eyes focussed on the floor – when nominations were asked for at an AGM, I found myself appointed to the office of Chair of the local Voluntary Community and Faith Sector Forum.

The Forum is operating in the wake of five years of stringent austerity, of welfare reform which has made many destitute, and the slashing of funding to local authorities in the North of England who serve some of the most deprived communities. There are some encouraging signs of churches and communities responding in generous and compassionate action, through the rapidly expanding foodbank movement, debt counselling, support for the homeless, and work clubs for the unemployed. Perhaps although the rhetoric of Cameron’s “Big Society” has faded, and the assertion that “we are all in this together” can be shown up as nonsensically untrue, there is some hope in the emergence of a holy safety net that seeks to plug the gaps in the holey one of the shrinking welfare state. Faith-based provision however, remains somewhat isolationist, safely within the cocoon of its churchiness, and scarcely daring to engage with the wider debates on policy for the Third Sector at the national or local level, and rarely drawing on the major resources of charitable funders such as the Big Lottery of the European Social fund.

Not that the secular voluntary sector is immune from retreat into its own silos, or that the majority of charities have the capacity to engage on the broad battle field that stretches before us. Official thinking on the Third Sector under the neo-liberal regimes of recent decades seem to equate charities and big business. They should operate under market conditions, providing services under contracts, awarded after competitive tendering to government; or operate as social enterprises generating profits to be reinvested for social impact rather than merely private gain. All the better if they can do it cheaper or at the same price as the private sector, and add some value by  deploying unpaid labour and the caring ethos energized by what we at the William Temple Foundation term “spiritual capital”.

Some of the larger charities have adapted quickly to play by the new rules, and made themselves competitive in tendering for contracts, and also at pitching for public donations. But while much good work continues to be done, significant spending goes on employing professional staff who may previously have worked in the public sector (on better terms and conditions), and in the case of some charities, on excessive salaries for senior managers. Much smaller grass-roots charities, which have always relied on truly voluntary labour, and funded themselves by jumble sales and sponsored walks, can also sustain their work under the new conditions. However, many medium-sized local charities which had become too dependent on a single source of funding are struggling and likely to fall by the wayside.

The pre- and post-election period offers opportunity to think afresh on the concepts of charity and the Third Sector. It increasingly appears that the lumping together of so many different type of groups and organizations under the catch-all label of the Voluntary, Community and Faith Sector is a category mistake.

According to National Commission for Independent Action (NCIA), voluntary services face a bleak future as ‘servants of the Government’. The NCIA challenges voluntary groups to take urgent action to fight for the rights of the people they serve, protect their independence and resist the privatisation of public services. Besides the issues of the contracting regime, they express concerns about the position of charities operating from within minority communities, and of the dangers of workfare schemes which make volunteering compulsory. There are huge dangers too for freedom of speech. Familiar to the church from Beckett onwards, those co-opted as chaplains to the powerful find the prophetic role of “speaking truth to power” perilous to their survival and integrity of witness. Recent legislation has limited the political campaigning of charities and according to NCIA charities are being told to keep quiet or lose government contracts. Christian theology also has something to offer to this debate, as for exampled by Steve Wyler’s recent blog post and my own article Faith and Volunteering in the UK.

William Temple described the (recent Great) War in 1928 as:

as a struggle between the idea of the state as essentially Power—Power over its own community and against other communities—and of the state as the organ of community… it is contrary to the psychology of the power-state to suffer conversion; it was likely to fight before it let a welfare-state take its place.

There does not seem to be a contradiction then for Temple between what the state can and should do, and what voluntarism from the community can contribute. Rather Temple maintained optimism that in a democracy, all sectors can work together for good. There is much to admire in the public leadership Temple gave as a pillar of the establishment to the development of a welfare state. After his death in 1944 this came to fruition after in the post-war period when Britain understood itself as a national community where “we are all in it together”. It was a time too when the national church, and the other Christian denominations were more tightly woven into the social fabric of everyday life of the nation.

However, according to Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Temple’s friend and co-belligerent, “the real” William Beveridge,

was shocked by the Labour government’s assault on the voluntary friendly societies, those glorious creations of independent working-class endeavour. In 1948, Beveridge published Voluntary Action… a passionate defence of voluntary provision of social welfare… Beveridge was recanting his own role in the creation of a vast centralised bureaucracy.

While it was not unproblematic that many church and charitable institutions were handed over to the care of the state during the Atlee government, we may need to take this reading of Beveridge with a pinch of ideological suspicion, as it betrays a neo-liberal concern for “smaller government”.

However, in this present, fragmented age, where the market and the state together operate quite unashamedly as “power”, (or as the Bible might have it “Babylon”) I doubt that the establishment coalition of bishops, large charities and benignly progressive political parties can articulate, let alone rebuild national institutions that are needed for the justice and welfare of all. Rather it requires a struggle from below: a careful building of alliances of democratic, member-led independent voluntary associations, community groups, progressive local authorities, parish churches, other congregations and faith communities to bring about real change.

Greg Smith is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation


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