Independent voice of the third sector

As chair of Wales Council for Voluntary Action I am sensitive to any charge that the third sector has been captured by Government funding – and as such noted comments made by Steve Thomas in his valedictory speech as departing CEO of the Wales Local Government Association LGA.

Why sensitive? Well - because the protecting, enabling, amplifying and being an independent voice of the sector is core to the role of WCVA. The charge of Government capture of the sector is not new and is one we need to take seriously as the independent voice of civil society is vital to the health of our communities and the democratic systems we promote.

The ability to have an independent voice that can be critical of government while in receipt of public funds is a founding principle for WCVA. A principle that has been endorsed by Welsh Ministers when it has been threatened by the UK Government. A principle which is to be resolutely defended by WCVA on behalf of the sector – as we have had occasion to do in recent months.

In fact our evidence does not support the view that there is over-reliance on Welsh government grants in Welsh third sector. Indeed the contrary is the case:

  • Our Third Sector Data Hub shows that Welsh Government Grant funding for the third sector has decreased by around 27% between 2010-11 and 2016-2017. The third sector receives less than 2% of Welsh Government funding.

  • The Hub also shows the income of charities registered in Wales per head of population is just half of that of charities registered in England and Scotland

  • The bigger problem in Wales is the low capacity of the sector to engage in important debates

  • We are concerned that the shift away from grant funding to focus on contracts is again squeezing the capacity of organisations to speak out on the big issues. This is a particular concern around local authority funding, as a previous Wales Audit Office report highlighted

I also do not see the evidence of Government capture in the campaigning work being undertaken across the sector. I do not think for a minute that Welsh Ministers and Government officials feel that they are dealing with an acquiescent third sector that they have captured for their own purpose.

The charge of ‘capture’ also undermines the principles of partnership established as part of the devolution process, with structures for Government engagement with the sector enshrined in the Third Sector Scheme and evident in the Third Sector Partnership Council. These structures are not perfect and can be improved, but they are certainly the envy of colleagues across the border. Indeed WCVA members tell us that they often have more difficulty to get their voice heard in conversations with local government and especially where commissioning practice has tended to increase competition rather than collaboration.

As I know well the sector played a key role in shaping the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act which has involvement as a core principle, providing a legal framework to enable community led solutions to improve wellbeing. This is where we now need to put our efforts in ensuring that this way of working is adopted. Policy and practice is best shaped by those on the front line - these are the voices that need to be heard and championed and the third sector in Wales is well placed to support.

Next week I’ll be chairing a roundtable that’s bringing people together across sectors – including WLGA – to look at this very issue. I anticipate this will be a robust, noisy and constructive conversation.

And just finally to thank Steve Thomas for all the support and challenge he has brought to the sector in his role as a champion for the local democratic process.

This blog also appears on WCVA blog

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