The Sunday Times

January 2nd, 2011

Smash the charity establishment and real giving will bloom again

Charity begins at home and in the heart. It does not begin or have anything much to do with the high-street cash machine, or so one would have thought. Last week Francis Maude, paymaster general and Cabinet Office minister, stirred some public outrage with a government green paper on charitable giving; it was widely reported that he was proposing to get people to give money to charity when withdrawing cash at ATMs.

Not surprisingly, many people objected.

“Is it the job of government to force us into giving?” asked one newspaper. “Charity cashpoints are blasted as Big Brother”, said another. There were the predictable objections to the government demanding charity on top of high taxation. The money would presumably go to a large centralised pot, doled out at government or quango discretion. It would in effect be another form of taxation — and a clever one because fairly painless.

However, most of the outrage was misplaced. Cash-machine giving was only one idea in a green paper full of other suggestions for encouraging social action. The government is trying to bring about a cultural shift in our attitudes to charity; in the green paper’s clumsy language, which is alarmingly like the meaningless blather of the early Blair years, it says it is after “a collective approach to building culture change”. Oh dear. It is true there needs to be a radical change in the culture of charity. But it is much less certain who should or even could bring about such change. One can only hope Maude means it when he insists that the main lesson his department has recently learnt is the importance of acknowledging the limits of government.

Although there are many limits to what government can or should try to “build”, it is not particularly limited in its ability to destroy, especially in social and cultural spheres. An unintended side effect of the post-war welfare state was to do great damage to the idea of charity. It did not destroy it; the British are still much more generous in giving to charity than most other countries, including Germany and France, although at 29th we come low on an international list of volunteering.

All the same, charities are and have been under constant threat from the intrusion of the state in various ways — to control them, to change their purposes, to professionalise them, to impersonalise them, to starve them out of business if not considered worthy and to drive them out of business with red tape.

When, after the war, the state took over responsibility for the sick and the needy, including the schools and hospitals that had been set up by personal charity, it removed from people the traditional obligation of giving to others. It nationalised charity, much as it nationalised family obligations.

Before long charity was openly despised as do-gooding by Lady Bountifuls and volunteering was discouraged by many charities as they became ever more professionalised. By the time local government was contracting out vast amounts of social care work to charities, which became known as voluntary sector service providers, such charities had indeed become extensions of local government, entirely dependent on it for approval and survival. Meanwhile, smaller charities have been edged out as inefficient and harder to institutionalise and volunteering is now low.

Maude’s green paper asks for our ideas, so here are a couple of mine. What’s needed is some serious creative destruction — a break-up of the state charitable establishment and its institutional mentality. First, the government should get a firm grip on the Charity Commission and the formidable Dame Suzi Leather and strip back its present over-mighty powers to simple inspection on simple principles strictly decided by parliament. When quangocrats can and do attempt to control charities, or change their purposes, they are not just abusing their powers. They actively discourage charity and contribute to a culture of anxiety and bullying.

My own direct experience of the Charity Commission has been small but depressing. Recently, in the course of renaming a small grant-giving trust and making a few minor changes to our articles of association, my colleagues and I applied to the commission for approval. We used an expensive solicitor to avoid the usual delays and errors, but were told by the commission several times to rewrite our charitable purposes.

These purposes are simple and uncontroversial but somehow not absolutely to the taste of the commission and we wasted charitable money going to and fro negotiating the wording — in effect it wanted to instate promoting health as one of our aims, although the trust was not set up for that purpose.

Who are the employees of an unelected quango to say what our charitable purposes should be in any case, so long as they are legal? This is a sign of the mentality — the culture — that seeks to control charities, to cut and prune them into uniformity rather than to let a hundred flowers bloom.

Maude’s paper points out that the government has launched a “red tape taskforce” — again, those dreadful tones of early Blair blather. Whenever I hear the word taskforce I am immediately convinced that nothing will change.

If you look at the red tape tying up charities, it is not the detail that matters, loony though it is. One youth club for delinquent teenagers has to report regularly — for example — on what percentage of its “clients” understand its “mission statement” and, of those, what percentage approve of said mission statement. There are about 17 double-sided pages of this insane self-auditing to fill in. All this for a tiny outfit, partly staffed by volunteers, which is dealing with disturbed, illiterate children from sink estates.

The problem is not in such detail. The problem lies deeper, in the mentality of those civil servants who are so institutionalised that they seriously think it is worthwhile dreaming up such daft rules.

It is, after all, their job to write such nonsense and, of course, no nonsense would mean no mortgage and no pension.

This stuff is a monstrous hybrid of risk avoidance and unnecessary jobsworth “professionalisation”. It’s not enough to talk of cutting red tape. The sources of red tape must be rooted out and burnt. Any jobs and initiatives producing it should be abolished in the name of the big society. What we need is demolition, not “building”, so that a real, organic charitable culture can take root in the rubble and grow — locally, independently and in the heart.