Government rejects reforms of the Lobbying Act: I think it is a sign of political weakness

I have written here before about the negative impact the Lobbying Act has on the ability of charities to play a full role in the public debate around social policy. Examples can be found here, here, here and here.

Leaders from around the charity sector recently wrote to the government asking it to implement reforms of the Lobbying Act recommended in Lord Hodgson’s review, a review commissioned by the government itself and fully endorsed by the cross party Lords Select Committee on Charities.

Me lobbying Chris Skidmore MP on his recent visit to BHT!

Last week the Cabinet Office minister, Chris Skidmore, said that the Government will be not be implementing any of recommended reforms that would have reduced restrictions on campaigning.

Chris Skidmore recently said that the government is pro-charity and keen to involve the sector in the democratic process.

A sign of a healthy democracy is that those in power allow comment and listen to views that might not be comfortable for it.  Charities, while not party political, should be free to speak out on behalf of the causes and people they support.

I am deeply disappointed by the government’s decision not to implement the recommendations of the review it commissioned.  I see it as a sign of political weakness.


Make Change Count: How You Can Help Rough Sleepers in Brighton and Hove

The Make Change Count campaign, which is being launched today (7th August 2017), seeks to raise awareness about what support is available in the city for people sleeping rough and offering advice on how best to help.

The best way to help someone sleeping rough is through professional help.
Brighton Housing Trust, along with St Mungo’s, Equinox, Nightstop and Project Antifreeze, are highlighting the practical support available all year round in the city and how best to help rough sleepers. The campaign is supported Brighton & Hove City Council and Sussex Police.

Giving money on the street can be counter-productive and lead to people staying in their current situation when more effective help is available. The various charities make sure those in need have hot meals, access to shower facilities, clothing and support from outreach workers to move people away from the street to rebuild their lives.

My colleague, Nikki Homewood, who is BHT’s Director of Services, said: “The Make Change Count campaign is all about getting the right help at the right time for those who are sleeping on our streets. We’re sharing information on how residents can refer people they are concerned about and providing an alternative giving option to donating on the street.

“The campaign aims to help people make informed decisions when giving money or other items to rough sleepers. We are keen to make clear that we’re not telling anyone how they should spend their money, that’s a matter of personal choice.
“We’d like to share the experiences we’ve gained from many years of working with rough sleepers. We know that moving off the streets is a difficult thing to do, no matter how much people want a better standard of living. People sleeping rough are often very vulnerable and have lost confidence to plan for the future because of the circumstances they’re in. Support is needed to help people rebuild their lives.

“We’re keen to all work together to give people the best chance for the future. People understandably want to help those living on the streets, and giving to someone right in front of you is a natural reaction. But there can be better ways to help and we’re asking people to think about how they can really make their change count.”

How you can help:

  • Donate today by texting UMCC17 £3 to 70070
  • Contact Streetlink or on 0300 500 0914 with information about where people are rough sleeping is a way to make sure they are known to support agencies offering professional help. The rough sleeper outreach team, run by St Mungo’s, responds to details given to Streetlink and goes out to see all known rough sleepers in the city. The team discusses a person’s needs, working with them to explore options to try to move them off the streets and into accommodation.

Cllr Clare Moonan, lead councillor for rough sleeping, said: “The Make Change Count campaign can transform and, even save, lives. In Brighton & Hove we have a wide range of services and support designed to help those in need but there is always more we can do to help. Working together, everyone in this caring city really make a difference.”

More information about the Make Change Count charities:

Thank you to Pete West for being a truly wonderful Mayor of Brighton and Hove

This is an Opinion item first published on 18th May 2017 in the Brighton Argus.  I forgot at the time to post the text on this blog.

Last year I wrote in this column: “The new mayor, Cllr. Peter West, is taking an interesting and novel approach to his charities. Rather than selecting two or three who would benefit from his fundraising efforts, he has decided to work with a total of 27 charities.

“While the Mayor’s Charity Committee traditionally organises events throughout the year, Mayor West will be supporting events organised by the charities themselves.

“Will this approach be better or worse? I think it is certainly worth a try even though it breaks, in some way, with tradition. If the 27 charities each raise £3,000 with the support of the Mayor, that would raise £81,000, itself beating Lynda Hyde’s record.

“As one of the twenty seven charities chosen by Cllr. West, BHT will use this opportunity to raise as much as possible.”

The approach taken by Pete West was questioned at the time. With the benefit of hindsight it can be seen as an unambiguous success.

Geraldine Keenan and Pete West

Cllr. West has attended almost 1,000 events, and supported so many initiatives organised by his charities. He has been very generous with his time in supporting Brighton Housing Trust, and with his support we have raised far more than the £3,000 mentioned above.

As Pete West hands over the chains of office this afternoon to his successor, Cllr. Mo Marsh, can I say he has been a truly wonderful Mayor of Brighton and Hove, and Geraldine Keenan has been a fantastic Mayoress. I am sure than others will follow his lead in years to come.

The general election, politics and charities

Charities have to be very cautious at the best of times about never being seen to support or oppose a particular political party. While there have been attempts, formal and informal, to restrict the freedom of charities to speak out on issues, these have been resisted.

In normal times it is fine for me to say that a particular policy will have a positive or negative impact on our client group, even if that policy is associated entirely with one political party. It is not acceptable to say: “Those evil (party name), typical of them proposing ….” And equally unacceptable to say: “I love the (party name), they are so wonderful ….”.

During a general election it is all the more restrictive. There is a fine line that can easily be crossed by statements that can be seen supporting or opposing the manifesto of a particular party. There are things I have long called for which might, and I suspect will, be in the manifesto of various parties, but not all.

Therefore, discretion is the better part of valour at these times.

In some elections we have a procession of politicians wishing to be seen visiting BHT or one of its services. The approach we will be taking this year is not to agree to a visit to BHT services by local candidates. I will meet with any of them to brief them on the issues facing our clients and those facing BHT itself.

In one election, three candidates who were due to debate each other on the Sunday Politics South East asked me to brief them. I t was amusing to listen to them, two of them normally at odds with each other, agreeing with each other, the third ignored what I had said and opposed the other two.

So this blog will be more toned down than usual. I will be publishing real life stories of clients but none will be related to the election.

But come 9th June, I might just find my voice again!

The smallest charities are finding the going hardest and fear for their future

18% of charity chief executives believe that their organisation is struggling to survive, according to a survey carried out by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (of which I am a member).

What is particularly worrying is that charities with a turnover of less than £1 million were disproportionately represented in those who are taking a pessimistic view. Those of us leading larger organisations are fortunate to have more options available to us, and the loss of one or two key income streams will not compromise the financial viability of the organisation as a whole, even though individual services might close.

It is these small organisations that are probably the closest to their communities but may also be ones that are least equipped to respond to a worsening economic environment.

Three small organisations have sought sanctuary by joining BHT over recent years – Threshold Women’s Counselling, the Hastings Community Housing Association (HCHA), and the Whitehawk Inn. There are some efficiencies to be gained by such mergers, but they are often overestimated. The real advantage can come through shared central expertise and improved cash flow.

Merging with a larger organisation can ensure the continuation of services and doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of identity. Threshold is still called Threshold, HCHA is now Hastings Community Housing, and the Whitehawk Inn remains the same.

There is a loss of autonomy with the governance and management arrangements of the ‘receiving’ organisation tending to take over, and the business disciplines will be applied across the expanded organisation.

An understandable mistake that trustees of small, struggling charities are known to make is to hope a corner will be turned or something cropping up. That very rarely happens. They might leave an approach to a larger, relatively stronger, organisation too late. It is tough to be at the helm of an organisation that is struggling. I know, I have been there. But an early approach can result in charitable services being saved and continued. After all, that is why we are here.

Charging charities for the work of the Charity Commission is not on

The Charity Commission is to consult about whether charities should pay towards the running cost of the Commission. In a recent poll, 78% of 225 respondent said no. The charge would be between £60 and £3000 and would pay towards the running costs of the Commission.

I wonder whether there is a fundamental flaw with this proposal. Charities are very restricted on how they can spend money. If money was donated for one purpose, it may not be spent on another. I am currently asking for sponsorship for a charity cycle ride and have said that the money raised would go towards the cost of running First Base Day Centre. We would not be allowed to use any of that money for any other purpose such as …. paying a fee towards the running costs of the Charity Commission.

If a charity spends money on an item for which the money was not raised, the Charity Commission would certainly have something to say about that.

We could, of course, start a JustGiving appeal to pay our fee to the Commission but I doubt that there would be an overwhelming response from the public to meet this dubious cost.

The Charity Commission is a Quango and, as such, the government should ensure that it is fit for purpose and adequately funded for that purpose. It should not be imposing a tax on charities whose funds were intended for truly charitable purposes.

The Role of BHT: to do the work we do, and to influence public policy

BHT has a duel role: first and foremost to do the work that we do, day in and day out, combating homelessness, creating opportunities, and promoting change, improving lives and changing the communities we work in for the better.

Secondly, it is BHT’s role to highlight the impact that public policy has on the lives of our clients and tenants, and doing so without fear or favour.

A couple of years ago, the then Minister for the Third Sector, Brooks Newmark, said that charity chief executives should avoid becoming involved in politics.  He said: “stick to your knitting”.  Perhaps he should have done likewise as a few months later he was caught out by a national newspaper sending photographs of himself in a state of undress to a middle aged male reporter posing as a young female research assistant.

There is a fine line to tread between campaigning on public policy that impacts on our tenants and clients, and becoming party political.  Merely praising or criticising a particular policy does not make us party political.  We have a moral obligation to do so, notwithstanding efforts by successive governments to clip our wings.  Politicians love charities at election time.  Less so when we criticise their policies.

BHT has campaigned and commented on, publicly and in private, on many issues during 2016, including:

  • Extending the Right to Buy to housing associations
  • The benefits cap
  • The sanctions regime
  • Cuts to rents in specialist supported housing
  • The high cost of funerals
  • The Homelessness Reduction Bill
  • The closure of courts
  • Cuts to legal aid
  • Housing policy in general
  • The increase in households, including children, in temporary and emergency accommodation
  • Lack of drug rehabilitation services in East Sussex
  • Attempts to silence charities through the Lobbying Act
  • Poverty and the rise in the use of food banks
  • And, incomprehensibly, the awarding of more giant contracts to companies such as G4S!

i see no reason to change our approach in 2017.