Who’s in charge of independence?

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By Nick Seddon, Third Sector, 20 February 2008

There was a sumptuous moment last spring when a leaked internal government memo revealed that Ian McCartney, then trade minister at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, had told officials to cancel meetings with charities opposed to the new EU economic agreements “if they don’t change their tune”.

Nick Seddon

Although it didn’t necessarily refer to contracted bodies, it would be hard to find a closer resonance with that hoary old cliche he who pays the piper calls the tune.

No wonder the National Coalition for Independent Action, a campaign to protect the independence of voluntary organisations and oppose control by government, is worried about the capacity of those organisations to become actively involved in dissent. Accordingly, the coalition’s aim is “to resist the co-option of voluntary action by state interests and state agendas” and, as spokeswoman Penny Whitehouse put it, “speak out and expose what sits behind words like partnership”.

Certainly, report after report exposes an asymmetry of power between charities and statutory bodies, and there is growing dismay about changing values, as some agencies start to look and sound like the departments they depend on for funding. Nor does it help when government, surveying a mythically homogeneous sector and betraying an instrumental attitude, issues directives referring to “what the sector can deliver”.

Generally, it’s alarmist to claim that government is some malicious leviathan intent on colonising voluntary and charitable organisations. Anyone who knows anything about government knows it’s not joined-up enough to do that. Government as a funder – like any funder – has a right to specify what it wants its money to achieve. The real question for charities – which, if they are delivering public services, should do just what they’re paid to do – is who should be the guardians of independence?

With the backing of heavyweights such as the New Economics Foundation and the Tudor Trust, the coalition’s existence suggests a recognition that it’s up to civil society to protect independence. Charities should look to citizens and communities for their money and mandate, tell ministers to take it or leave it and call their own tune.

– Nick Seddon is an author and journalist: nptseddon@hotmail.com

This article first appeared in Third Sector.

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