Interview: Outgoing ACEVO chief Sir Stephen Bubb – "At the moment the message around Whitehall is that charities don't matter"
After 16 years as the outspoken CEO of the charity leaders’ network ACEVO, Sir Stephen Bubb is moving to a new project. He finds time to tell Suzannah Brecknell about his frustrations with government, and his hopes for the future
Sir Stephen Bubb, outgoing chief executive of ACEVO, warns of an “astonishing” drop in civil servants’ engagement with charities over the last year. Image: ACEVO
Sir Stephen Bubb is recalling a meeting which ushered in something of a golden age in the relationship between the charity sector and the government.
It was 2006 and Bubb – who this month stands down as chief executive of the charity leaders’ network ACEVO after 16 years – was due to meet Tony Blair to try to persuade him of the need for the Cabinet Office to have its own dedicated third sector department. At that time, responsibility for work with the third sector had been with Home Office and there had been extensive preparation with Home Office officials to agree an agenda for the meeting and follow-up plans.
On the day itself, however, Bubb was kept waiting as Blair’s previous appointment over-ran.
“I'm told by a friend who worked in Blair’s office that he arrived rather stressed because of the [over-running] meeting he'd been in," Bubb says. "Apparently he picked up the briefing for my meeting and said words to the effect of 'What the f*** am I doing meeting the voluntary sector?’
"So in he came, and I could tell he was tired and stressed, but actually by the end he had he realised this was one of the ways he could reform public services. Then, when he went back into his office he said: ‘We’ve got to do this: it’s the right thing to do,’” Bubb says.
To Bubb, that demonstrated two things: the importance of working with the civil service to establish an agenda and structures to ensure action, but also the power of a prime minister. “Once Blair had got this, and had made it clear he wanted it to happen, the messages around Whitehall were very good. It opened up lots of channels. There was a very strong view that cabinet ministers were expected to think about how they could reform public services through using the charity sector."
Bubb – whose wish was granted with the creation of the Office of the Third Sector (now the Office for Civil Society) – saw similar enthusiasm from Gordon Brown, and from David Cameron in the early days of the coalition. Indeed, in 2011 Bubb stood beside Cameron as the prime minister launched the Open Public Services white paper, and waxed lyrical about the importance of involving charities and community organisations in modernising public services.
"That's why, for me it’s so incredibly disappointing that we've reached a point where we have the Cabinet Office minister [Matt Hancock] insulting charities, instead of thinking how he can use us properly," he says.
“These are organisations with an outstanding history of doing very important work. To be dismissed in this way by a government minister who has the responsibilities, through the Cabinet Office, for relationships with them was quite disgusting.” – Sir Stephen Bubb
Bubb is referring to recently-announced government plans to insert a clause in all grants to charities preventing them from using public funds to lobby ministers. The official announcement used the term “sock puppets”, referring to research from the Institute of Economic Affairs on the practice of lobbying by charities. Hancock’s statement described “the farce of government lobbying government”, and said the clause would “make sure that taxpayer funds are spent on improving people’s lives and good causes, rather than lobbying for new regulation or using taxpayers’ money to lobby for more government funding.”
Bubb is indignant at the suggestion his members are mere sock puppets. “These are organisations with an outstanding history of doing very important work. To be dismissed in this way by a government minister who has the responsibilities, through the Cabinet Office, for relationships with them was quite disgusting.”
This sort of negative message from politicians has caused an “astonishing” drop in civil servants’ engagement with charities over the last year, Bubb says. “The contact has almost disappeared and that in my view is simply a reflection of the political agenda.”
"To spend scarce resources on supporting the private sector in a department about civil society is extraordinary," – Sir Stephen Bubb
The Office for Civil Society (OCS) itself is now a much-diminished shadow of the Office of the Third Sector, he suggests. And, rather than considering how to support civil society, build capacity and create strong relationships with charities, its agenda focuses on National Citizen Service and Social Finance.
"Those are both good things and important things to do, but that’s not the sum total of the agenda for a department that is supposed to be about supporting civil society,” Bubb says.
He is particularly concerned about a recent OCS review into mission-led businesses – that is, companies which have both economic and social aims but have not taken on the formal legal structure of a charitable interest company. The review will, according to the Cabinet Office “examine how this emerging sector can be supported to double in size over the next decade, delivering greater economic and social benefits.”
"To spend scarce resources on supporting the private sector in a department about civil society is extraordinary," Bubb says. He argues that the business department could and should be supporting corporate social responsibility and mission-led business, but not using resources intended to support civil society.
There are currently protections around which organisations can be supported by Big Society Capital – the bank set up by government to support social investment – but Bubb says he is suspicious that this mission led business review will be thinking about ways around those restrictions so that social finance can be given to private companies.
"The problem is you have a mission-led business today, and tomorrow it’s gone," he says, referring to the fact that when charitable interest companies are closed their assets can only be passed to charities or charitable interest companies. This asset lock also applies to most organisations which define themselves as social enterprises, since almost all of these bodies choose a legal form that includes protections for their assets. By contrast, a mission-led business could be sold to a private firm, taking with it any capital secured from public sources.
Despite being by turns suspicious, astonished and disgusted by actions of the current government, Bubb says he is still hopeful about the future. He may have lost much of the formal contact with officials and politicians he used to enjoy, but he says he is continuing to have discussions behind the scenes, pushing government to drop the charities gagging clause which he describes as “totemic of the toxic relationship with government”.
He also hopes that after the European referendum, politicians will turn their attention to domestic matters and re-discover the importance of the third sector for their agenda over the remainder of this parliament. Political leadership will be vital to improving the relationship between government and charities, he says. “It is crucially important that the climate – which gets established by senior ministers, the prime minister – changes. At the moment the message around Whitehall is that the sector doesn’t matter, they're pesky people who are irritating and therefore can be ignored."
Alongside this, Bubb wants to see a change to the way services are commissioned, calling for co-production – "I know it sounds rather a cliché," he says – rather than traditional procurement models. He points the way NHS England is commissioning learning disability services following a report he carried out into abuse of individuals with learning disabilities at the private hospital Winterbourne View.
"Instead of a master and servant procurement service, NHS England are now working with the third sector to commission services. It’s a very different approach that asks charities: ‘How would you go about tackling these problems?’ and then devises commissioning and procurement around that, instead of the very old fashioned approach that we have [elsewhere]."
"At the moment the message around Whitehall is that the sector doesn’t matter, they're pesky people who are irritating and therefore can be ignored" – Sir Stephen Bubb
For Bubb himself, the future is not with ACEVO – or at least, not in the role which he has held for the last 16 years. From this month, he is no longer chief executive of the association, and will instead working on a project called Charities Future Programme, run by ACEVO and funded by an anonymous philanthropist.
The mystery benefactor offered to fund the project, which will explore how to support good governance in the charitable sector, after hearing Bubb talk about the closure of Kids Company on Radio 4’s Today. During the broadcast, Bubb had argued that government must do more to support charities in improving their leadership and governance.
“If you neglect the back office, frontline delivery suffers," he tells CSW. When government is awarding grants and contracts, Bubb adds, it should always seek assurance that the charity has leadership and governance. This sort of assurance was eventually sought from Kids Company, but it came too late to prevent the collapse of the charity. "What went wrong was that ministers were not paying close enough attention to what many of us in the sector knew about the problems at Kids Company – this was also the case for the Charity Commission who had not spotted and acted on those problems,” Bubb says.
Bubb has been an outspoken critic of the Charity Commission. Last year he said the regulator should be rising above “tabloid noise” to be a public voice for the sector it is supposed to support as well as regulate.
"There’s been a rocky relationship between the sector and Charity Commission, but I think we can move on from that" – Sir Stephen Bubb
He hopes to use his new project to explore whether these two roles would be better separated, he says. "The commission always had that dual role to support and advise and to regulate, inquire, and root out fraud. It may be that actually what we need is an alternative, independent organisation – a centre, a hub of charity excellence – that provides support and advice.”
This organisation could potentially work with the Charity Commission but would be independently funded, he suggests – adding that he’s had positive discussions about the idea with both the commission’s chief executive and its chairman. "There’s been a rocky relationship between the sector and Charity Commission, but I think we can move on from that,” he says.
Bubb may see relations between government and the third sector as currently being at a low ebb, but he remains optimistic about the future. This is because he believes the charitable sector offers answers to public problems that government will not be able to ignore. “In many areas of public policy and public service delivery, there are problems that you can only solve by empowering and using our civil society," he says.
For Bubb, the need for public service reform offers glimmers of hope. And with a reference to those Blair years, when he believes a focus on partnering with charities came from the very top of government, he concludes: “People understand that empowering citizens and communities is the way to deliver effective services, so I think the future is bright and, as that song has it, things can only get better.”
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