Monday, 4 April 2016

Europe and the Charity Voice

I have just stepped down as the Secretary General of Euclid, the third sector leaders network, after 10 years. During this time I have become convinced of the importance of the EU and the value it brings to our third sector. It is true that the EU is a ghastly bureaucracy, and that it has a centralising tendency when we need more devolved and decentralised power. I used every opportunity to argue for a Europe of people, not institutions. We made some headway and the EU have made significant advances in promoting social innovation and promoting social finance. The fact we are in the EU provided a great platform for us to promote our civil society and its value - we have been doing this particularly in the newer EU countries where we have organised peer to peer learning and exchanges.

Clearly the EU needs to go further on how it uses and advances civil society but will this happen with the UK outside of the EU?  I don't think so. 

I know how I will vote in June; to stay. But the great thing about a referendum is my vote is simply one among the many. And everyone in our charity sector; leaders, volunteers, supporters, will decide for themselves. Its not for ACEVO to tell anyone how to vote, but it is the job of an umbrella body  to be part of the debate and encourage that debate.

In February, we asked ACEVO members what we should do on the EU referendum. They spoke, and the response was clear. More than half  wanted us to speak out on behalf of staying in the EU. This is a process which we have already begun, as I spoke about the costs of Brexit to the charity sector last month .

The recent Charity Commission guidance is unfortunately another example of them overreaching themselves, and going beyond powers in directing charities in an area where charities must decide for themselves in line with their mission and their view on the effects on beneficiaries . Their advice is already unraveling, but the latest advice is still flawed and many charities have expressed your anger about that advice (announced, I noted, in the Telegraph rather than in the usual way which seems to be another unhealthy development by the Commission). Both NCVO and us are taking this matter further with them. Legal advice is that charities are entitled to take a view. 

For me the one part of the advice - about how issues affecting funding not being ones you can consider - is particularly odd. The naivety that we should be able to just replace one stream of income with another, and that anyway it doesn't really matter how much money we get and this doesn't affect  how well we can fulfill our purpose and meet the needs of our beneficiaries is breathtaking.

International NGOs are particularly impacted by falls in sterling, and the markets have been very clear that a Brexit will hit the pound. This matters to charities. Will the government replace European funding streams that have been crucial yo many charities, especially in regeneration?  Who knows, but it is a key issue for a charity that is facing a financial crisis. A charity that is finding funding so hard they wonder if they can survive is fully entitled to worry about us leaving the EU. And to say so.

There is a more fundamental issue here; trust and confidence on the regulator. This recent advice, coming on top of revelations about contacts with the IEA on the gagging clause and articles by the Chair of the Commission are worrying many in our sector. We need a strong regulator. They must be above the ideological fray. Are they?

Charity commissioners are entitled to their views and to express them 

But the news that Prins, one of the Commissioners, has published a supporting essay for the wretched sock puppet gang will certainly raise eyebrows. Still, we must assume that if a Charity Commissioner is free to express his views on leaving the EU those of us in our sector (the majority I'm sure) must be free to express ours in favour of staying. 

This news will inevitably raise further questions about the Commissions advice and how far this has been tainted by an ideological, not a regulatory, view ? 

Friday, 18 March 2016

The Budget shows the Value of Charity Campaigning

How ironic that the Chancellor announces the sugar levy this week, which is the result of so much campaigning by charities, when his Cabinet Office colleague Matt Hancock wants to make it impossible for us to do that in the future. This is just one example of how the Budget today was not so much a case of jam today, but more of problems down the line.

Compared to four months ago, George cut a dejected figure at the despatch box. Economic forecasts do not look as good as he hoped. He has been left with no choice but to ask the Paymaster General to find a further £3.5 billion of efficiency savings. With government already cut to the quick, the brunt of these cuts will be left to fall on the moist vulnerable in society. And who will be left to pick up the pieces? As always, it will be our nations charities. In the Autumn, George gambled on strong economic forecasts to avoid austerity. Yesterday, that came back to bite him. While he was able to find tokens such as money to tackle homelessness, this was balanced out by severe cuts to disabled people. Ultimately, this was a budget which left our social fabric weakened.

It was also a budget which underlined the importance of charity voice. The sugar tax would never have happened were it not for the countless charities who have raised awareness of this issue. Even some of the charities which are to be in receipt of income from LIBOR fines and the tampon tax are known for their advocacy.

And not all of government would have the charity sector silenced. Yesterday, Lord Hodgson launched his last report into the impact of the Lobbying Act. This Act was a democratic car crash, and silenced too many charities around the most recent General Election. I am delighted that Lord Hodgson has recommended significant reform of the Lobbying Act. This will stop charities being subject to regulation on the appearance of their campaigns, and ensure that they are regulated on their intent. I still want to see the Lobbying Act repealed in its entirety, but these recommendations are a good first step.

In a week where the Government have taken on board the suggestions of charity voice, they should heed the lessons outlined by Lord Hodgson. We need his ideas implemented without delay, and without excuses. Otherwise, how can charities continue to contribute to the national debate, and form stronger policy?

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Time for Change - The Challenge Ahead

Yesterday marked the my report The Challenge Ahead. This is the final installment in my Time for Change campaign, which set out to improve the quality of care and support given to individuals with learning disabilities and/or autism.

First, I would like to thank all involved with this campaign over the last year. With the help of this diverse crowd – which has included everyone from providers to those affected by learning disabilities and/or autism – we have managed to get a real commitment from NHS England to close inappropriate care settings.

But this is not job done. There are still real challenges facing this programme. And it is to these that today’s report speaks.

First, I have called for a Learning Disabilities Commissioner. They would be empowered and obliged to act on behalf of those individuals with learning disabilities and/or autism. This is crucial to ensuring that the promises made last Autumn are kept, and that these people get the support they deserve.

I also call for the Transforming Care programme to be independently evaluated. Without rigorous external examination of the process, there is a risk that we reach 2019 only to find that yet more promises have been broken. We cannot allow this to happen.

This, and the other recommendations I have made, has come from a consultation with individuals affected by learning disabilities and/or autism. By listening to the voices of those most affected, it is possible to ensure that reforms are made with their best interests at heart.

And I was encouraged by what I heard at the launch of this report. Both Alistair Burt MP, the Minister for Social Care, and Luciana Berger MP, the Shadow Minister for Mental Health, supported the need to provide high quality care for people with learning disabilities and/or autism. But this is not just about politicians. We heard from Phill Wills, father of Josh Wills, and two family members of people who were in Winterbourne View. These compelling testimonies reminded us of why this campaign matters – to improve the lives of the people affected.

Finally, I will echo what Baroness Hollins said yesterday – This is just a report. What needs to come next is action.

Alistair Burt MP, Minister for Social Care

Luciana Berger MP, Shadow Minister for Mental Health

Phill Wills, Father of Josh Wills and Campaigner
 For more information on this report, see here.

Monday, 1 February 2016

The Importance of Good Governance

Today saw the release of the PACAC report on the collapse of Kids Company. Many of their observations chime with what I and ACEVO said last summer. They are right to say that the government and trustees gave Camilla Batmanghelidh far too much freedom. On top of that, there was no effort to deal with catastrophically low reserves. And they are right to underline the importance of effective and healthy governance.

What we saw was a total failure of governance. All of Kids Company’s funds were driven towards the front line. This left the back office woefully under supported. A lack of support which, unsurprisingly, led to the charities collapse. Here, the golden rule of charity governance – that charity is delivered on the front line, but it begins in the back office – was forgotten. 

Given this, PACAC were right to condemn the Kids Company trustees as ‘negligent’. What they did not then do was provide an image of how better governance could be promoted. Regulation alone cannot ensure best practice. What we need is a government, and regulator, which supports the sector to be better. I said this last year, when I wrote to the Chair of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross. I told him it is better to prevent, than to fight fire. What we heard today only underlines the importance of this. The additional funds recommended by PACAC should not be used simply to beef up policing. By providing additional support, it can help the sector flourish.

And a flourishing charity sector is good for society. This is why I, and ACEVO, will be looking to create a Charity Excellence Hub. This will be a crucial first step towards realising a more effective charity sector. But we cannot do this alone. We need support from others. Through this, we can build strong governance for the future, and prevent the collapse of yet more charities. 

I have been hammering this message home today, both on BBC Breakfast and the Today Programme. My Director of Public Policy, Asheem Singh, said the same on BBC News. The message is clear – if charities are to continue the excellent work which they do, then we must invest properly in their governance.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Open the Sewing Factory

What better way to open the morning than by baking my bread for breakfast Lebanese style and handing over $2000. We were visiting a Human Appeal social enterprise in Saida, an old port town on the Lebanese coast. Its a family run bakery, producing their own bread.  Of course in London we would die for these fantastic artisan flat breads, but here it is the staple of this working class district. It's run by Palestinian refugees and HA are going them the money to expand. And I got to hand over the cheque! Have to say the flat bread with thyme and herb coating is most delicious. It's often called the Lebanese pizza I'm told! 

It was off to see some schools. The first is a charity run school which takes kids from nursery to secondary. The Principal is the brother of the President of the famous Finsbury Park Mosque and his brother, Mohammed Kozbar, was there to greet me as well.  That was a bonus as he wants me to go and visit, which I shall certainly do when I'm back in London. Then it was on to a school for Syrian refugees.  It's a mark of the crisis in Syria that all the pupils come from every region in that country. There is no part of Syria not affected by war.  These pupils have often seen the most applying abuse and atrocity. But they are keen to learn and so return eventually to the country they have left. I wished them well.

But the main event of the day was officiating at the opening of The Sewing factory, along with the representative of the Qatar charity and Human Appeal. This is a social enterprise which aims to train Syrian women refugees and give them qualifications that will lead to employment. They also take in donated clothes which they wash and sew and either sell or give away. And they do a nice line in school uniforms. I made a speech which I hope fitted the occasion. I'm afraid I used that corny line about how good it is to give a starving person a fish, but how much better it is to teach them to fish. But it seems so apposite for the occasion. Many of the refugees have been here for so long they need to be supported both in their physical needs but also in education and skills. A brilliant initiative which has been done with major support from Britain and Qatar.

And then onto a conference for representatives of local charities to hear and discuss the role we have in humanitarian aid and sustainable development.

Then finally an hour of sightseeing. The port city of Saida is an ancient settlement and has an old fortress, port and souk.

So now my 3 days here in Lebanon are at an end. My views on the importance of support for the work of the Muslim Charity Forum remain as strong as ever. With the increasingly nasty climate that faces our British Muslim community it's essential our charity's work as a whole to support their work. Indeed we need to ensure the government, so far dismissive of  the work that these charities do understand that tackling extremism is built upon the roots that communities develop themselves it is Muslim charities that take such an important role in their humanitarian work and their development of civil society. ACEVO will continue to battle their cause against ignorance and prejudice. When governments are so keen to lecture and not to listen to the future for social cohesion. It remains bleak. 

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

A health day in Lebanon

When you don't have a health service and the government doesn't even provide the basics you realise what people suffer for lack of health care. What is available is provided through charities. Which is fine if those charities have all the reassurances they need. But they don't here. I was spending the days visiting some of the projects supported by the British Muslim charities.

We started in the south of the country at a mobile clinic that services the Syrian refugees in the region. It's funded partly by Islamic Relief UK.

We then moved onto visit a new project run by the Medrar foundation. I met the CEO, Rami Harajli, who is in charge of the work. He is a nephew I believe of the President of the Parliament. In this part of south Lebanon they are Shia. We saw rather a lot of posters and propaganda for Hezbollah. You see him here in front of the building that is going on.

But then it was moving north and a meeting with the Sunni Chief Mufti. A fine cleric and scholar who is also the chief judge in these parts.

Then it was straight to the north of the country and a hospital in Tripoli. Human Appeal have donated equipment to start an eye clinic in the hospital that proved medical care for the Syrian refugees who come from across the nearby border. 700,000 of them in and around these parts   A great and ancient port city known to the Romans and Greeks, we finished our field tour by eating at a fish restaurant by the harbour. I choose a dorado which they then grilled for me. With prawns and calamari  it was a lovely end to a hectic day. Again it's notable how little the government does for anyone. It is only the work of charities like the Muslim Charity Forum that supports such good humanitarian causes. When I was in the hospital in Tripoli I spoke to a young lad who had a badly broken leg. He has lost all his family. And now the job he had. 

It's worth remembering when we have so much publicity about extremism that there is a groups of strong and effective Muslim charities who are funding vital work in this war ravaged region. When we know the draw of Europe for so many refugees it's good that there are British charities who are doing vital work that support people staying in the region. Though this is support at the most basic and more is needed. Meeting families and hearing their stories brings home to you the need for a strong humanitarian response to this crisis.

At least here the refugees have a home in a building not a tent. Basic but at least better in the bitter cold. Built by the UN but they still have to pay rent for each room they use.
Got a rather sad girl keen on me taking her picture so here it is.

Then it was onto a spectacular project in the Deep South; a brand new hospital being built as a state of the art teaching hospital in a prime spot on a mountain top. Lots of fresh air! It is funded by the Medrar foundation. I met the CEO of  the foundation, Rami Harajli, and he is also on the board for the new medical centre. He is the nephew  (I think I got this right?) of the President of the Lebanese Parliament, who comes from these parts. In the interesting constitutional set up here the President of the Parliament is a Shia. The Prime Minister a Sunni and the President a Maronite Christian.
And no visit would be good without meeting with the religious leaders, so we had a short time with the Mufti in South Lebanon.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

In the camps

So, even given the language difficulty it's difficult to know what to say to a woman with breast cancer . Looking after her 3 kids after fleeing Syria as her husband had been shot in the street in Homs. And she has no money to pay for the treatment that would save her.

I'm in Lebanon as a guest of the Muslim charity forum and travelling with the CEOs of Islamic Relief and Human Appeal as well as the director of the Forum. We have been visiting the Syrian refugee camps in the Beeka valley where I met this lady and her family. We met with other families. You can see the mother of the family of 6 kids. Her eldest son is only 13 and he goes out to work to support them. One of the kids has epilepsy. And the other lady with her 2 grandchildren is supporting them as they have HepB and their mother is out at work as a housemaid to support their treatments.

Many of the kids in the camp have health problems. Many do not go to school and so many cannot read or write. They have been in the camps  for 3 or 4 years and still no end in sight. This is desperate and hearing the tales of the atrocities and the suffering brings home to you why so many have fled the war in their country.

The only support they get is from charities and international agencies. It's basic. It's not on a sustainable basis. And the winter is harsh and bitter when you live in a tent. It's remarkable how clean and tidy they are kept though when you can't afford money for fuel.  Or you make choices between eating and heating; it's a cruel life. 

But you can see at least I got stuck in with helping distribute aid for Human Appeal.  The aid convoy had brought bottles of fuel, blankets and mattresses.  We were welcome. 

I'm here in Lebanon with representatives of the Muslim Charity Forum, including the CEOs of Islamic relief and Human Appeal as well as the local NGOs.  We spent today visiting some of the camps in the Beeka valley, just across from the border. The camps vary in their organisation and management from those lucky enough to be in a camp with its own school to much smaller camps like the one we went to with just 15 families who have been here for 3 or 4 years and fled atrocities that these kids will never forget. Many of the kids don't go to school. 
In one family we visited the mother and her 6 younger kids are supported by the eldest son of 13 who goes out to work. Most of the families have health problems. One lady and her family  I met all had heb b and the mother, despite the illness goes out to work to try and pay for treatment;  there is no NHS out here and it's what you can afford. And when you don't have money, you don't get treatment.
The winters a fierce here.  We drove across the mountains to get to the camps.  The show is over 2 feet on the mountains and it is bitter in the valley, minus 7/8 at night.  You need fuel to warm the tents.  That costs and so sometimes there is no heat at all.  Just a flimsy tent to keep out the harsh and deadly weather. 
But we did not go empty handed.  We were with a lorry convoy that brought mattresses, bottles of fuel and blankets.
And obviously yours truly got stuck in.  Who said ACEVO doesn't work at the front line!