COVID-19 Pandemic

The Gentleness of Charity: British Sectoral Policy in the COVID-19 Crisis

Editors’ Note: John Picton examines the politics behind the British government’s (disappointing) emergency funding package directed to the nation’s charities.

The COVID-19 health crisis has led to a funding crisis in the British charity sector. Face-to-face fundraising is impossible, charities have had to close their shops, and the value of investment and reserve funds is at risk in a turbulent stock market. After a powerful sectoral lobbying effort, which included a campaign in the press, a high-profile presentation at a parliamentary committee, and collective letter demanding funds for a bail-out from more than 100 Members of Parliament, the government has produced an emergency funding package billed as being worth £750m.

This package was announced on national television by Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer on April 8th. It was a high-stakes moment for the charity sector, which had been nervously anticipating aid since the start of the national lock-down. It is when governments come under financial pressure that their policy preferences become clear, and so the nature of Rishi Sunak’s package tells us a great deal about the government’s attitude to the charity sector in Britain. Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis has been used to discipline a certain type of large nationally-focused welfare organisation to which conservative policy-makers are hostile.

Rishi Sunak unveiled a carefully calibrated scheme. £370m is to go towards small and medium local charities, providing frontline community aid during the COVID-19 response. £200m will keep the hospice sector afloat, and as part of a televised fundraising event on April 23rd, the government donated £27m towards the support of COVID-19 victims. Beyond this, there is some flexibility, but unspecified amounts will go to the Citizens Advice Bureau which advises on social benefits, to domestic violence organisations, and to St John Ambulance, which provides ambulance support, and is also helping to staff the government’s enormous temporary hospitals with first-aid volunteers.

This is a scheme in which there are clear winners and losers. Large national welfare organisations, such as children’s social care providers, disability, and homelessness charities, are not a priority under the plans. In a united lobbying campaign, the sector had rallied behind a headline figure that £4bn was needed. In his televised address, Rishi Sunak did not provide the large-scale package that the sector attempted to achieve through its lobby groups, and which would have benefited a diverse range of charitable organisations more equally. Instead, the Chancellor announced far less cash than hoped for by lobbyists, and skewed the funding towards local organisations on the frontline of the national COVID-19 response effort.

But while Rishi Sunak’s scheme might not reflect this fact, many large, national welfare organisations will be at the forefront of the COVID-19 crisis. And even if they are not on the frontline, they will suffer from the general economic tumult brought about by the outbreak. To understand why such charities have been deprioritised in the government’s rationed funding plan, it is necessary to account for the fact that conservative policymakers have a politically framed understanding of the national charity sector. Their preferred type of charity is both locally-based and non-political. But much of the contemporary sector is very different from that picture. Many modern charities are big organisations with a large paid staff. They also tend to campaign and lobby for their interests and beneficiaries. For a long period, it has been clear that these organisations are out of favour with government. Famously, Brooks Newmark, a former Conservative Minister for Civil Society, declared that these charities should, ‘stick to their knitting’.

Even as the package was announced on television, policy framing was in play. Addressing news journalists at Downing Street, Rishi Sunak said, “we all need the gentleness of charity in our lives.” This is a striking turn of phrase. It evokes a long-vanished world of amateur care-work. It looks nostalgically backwards to unpaid nursing, church charity, and visits to the poor. In common with the association between charity and knitting made by Brooks Newmark, it is also a conservative, gendered framing.

Organisations with this amateur focus on care-work scarcely exist in modern times, but the small community welfare organisations that Rishi Sunak has favoured might be thought to come the closest. Grass roots charities, by their nature, often focus on community issues. But elsewhere, the social and economic changes of the Post-War era have transformed the composition of the contemporary British sector in a way that conservative policymakers do not favor.

At one point, British charity was understood as a broadly conservative institution. As Margaret Simey describes in her seminal study of voluntary effort in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, upper middle-class women, denied the opportunity to work, made up the backbone of voluntary action. It was an amateur class-based phenomenon. But after women entered the jobs market after the Second World War, the charity sector professionalised. Volunteering has become progressively less important in the day-to-day running of organisations. The historic, conservative, amateur model has slowly withered on the vine, along with its flag-days, bazaars, and fêtes.

Outside of small and local community organisations, swathes of the sector adopted a working culture with a professionalised ethos. It is common for a modern CEO to move strategically between organisations in pursuit of pay increases. Fundraising is normally paid work. Staff have performance targets. As charitable organisations compete fiercely for government contracts, many have increased in size. They are often national organisations, as scale enables charities to make efficiency savings in the delivery of government services.

There is little that is amateur, or ‘gentle’, about this national sector, and so it offends the conservative framing of charity. The trustee board will normally be comprised of unpaid volunteers, but in large organizations, they are from professional managerial backgrounds. They will have experience in human resources, law, finance, marketing and public relations. Some organizations will also have grass-roots volunteers. But in modern times, these are often retirees, under the supervision of a professional manager.

It is these large and professional organisations which have been broadly excluded from the emergency funding package. Yet even if conservative policymakers dislike the modern sector, with its expansive bureaucracy and national institutions, its character is a direct consequence of state policy. To a large extent, it is a shadow public sector. In the government-sponsored contract culture, charitable organisations are largely creatures of the regulatory state. They are paid to follow its priorities. A layer of large charities, successful at winning contracts, has evolved. These organisations are closely monitored through tight legal arrangements. Their performance is measured and appraised by the state.

This sector does have a distinct political ethos, and that is also alienating to conservative policy-makers. The politics of British charity are not normally seriously redistributionist, but in many organisations, there is a strongly-held commitment to rights-based advocacy. Charities might launch public information and parliamentary lobbying campaigns. It is not uncommon for centre-left politicians to have connections in the sector. Famously, David Miliband, a failed contender for the leadership of the Labour Party, resigned from Parliament in favour of a high-profile, and equally highly paid, career with the International Rescue Committee.

It is clear that the character of large-scale British welfare charity fits uneasily with a conservative, historically-tinted framing of what the sector should be. Because of its rights-based political ethos, its tendency to campaign, its association with centre-left politicians, and also because it appears to take the form of a shadow public sector, conservative policy-makers are hostile. In one remarkable newspaper column, Rob Wilson, a former Conservative Minister for Civil Society, responded impetuously to a report on global wealth by Oxfam, declaring that the organisation had, ‘disappeared up its own, morally righteous, posterior.’

Rationing support by skewing the emergency funding package against large charities is part of a wider attack on the national sector. It is a policy move which should be understood alongside the hard-line approach that the government has taken to charity campaigning. Alongside much of the common law world, charitable organisations are barred from having primarily political purposes. They are unable to devote a majority of funds towards politics and lobbying. This is a well-established judge-made rule, but British Conservative policymakers have recently further restricted political activities in the sector through legislation. Organisations are no longer permitted to spend beyond a certain threshold campaigning on social issues at election time without registering with the state.

In the light of this legal move, it’s clear that the government’s local and apolitical framing of charity is not just historical nostalgia. It marks a self-conscious and politically-informed rejection of the large-scale contemporary charity welfare sector as it currently exists in the UK. There is an active policy desire to limit and restrict modern British charity. Once it is understood that the national sector is out of political favour, the shortfall in the emergency package can be seen to have a policy function. The emergency funding is a calibrated response which took weeks to develop. Its consequences are well considered.

If much of British national welfare charity is understood as a shadow public sector, then the government’s undersized emergency package must also be seen as a disciplining of sectoral interests. The shortfall in the scheme will lead to belt-tightening and restructuring in the national sector. Attempts at redundancies and the casualisation of staff are more likely. Cut-price competition for future government contracts will also likely follow. The immediate cause of this sectoral crisis is COVID-19, but the more significant impact will come from deliberate government policy.

-John Picton

John Picton is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. where he is a member of the Charity Law and Policy Unit. He has recently co-edited Debates in Charity Law, a collection of chapters on the intersection between charity law and social change.

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