The Office for Civil Society's strategic partner transition fund, beginning this week, signals a tighter focus than the scheme it replaces, with successful bidders expected to develop the big society agenda. John Plummer reports
When the Labour government evaluated its strategic partners programme in 2009, it published the results six months later, and only after a request had been made under the Freedom of Information Act.
The secrecy led to speculation that ministers had been critical of some of the main voluntary sector organisations. But the assessments were remarkably bland: the National Council for Voluntary Organisations was credited with raising the profile of the sector, and local infrastructure group Navca was described as a "trusted adviser".
The vague comments suggested that, far from being strategic, the programme had unclear outcomes, was loosely supervised and existed primarily to provide £62.9m of unrestricted funding for some 40 recipients over five years.
Many beneficiaries defend the value of core funding, but few dispute the programme lacked a clear purpose. The same cannot be said of the coalition government's strategic partner transition fund, which began this week and will award 17 organisations £8.2m before closing in 2014.
Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, is due to meet successful applicants tomorrow to reveal more detail about his plans, but it is already clear that the new programme will be more demanding and will tie partners to the government's agenda.
The Office for Civil Society will commission the successful applicants to carry out specific projects, such as hosting conferences and promoting better funding and governance models, as well as providing a voice for the sector in Whitehall.
But the application criteria included political as well as practical measures. Bidders were asked how they would "support and deliver the strategic priorities of the OCS" and "contribute to the development of the big society agenda". They were also expected to "promote good working relationships with government".
Kevin Curley, chief executive of Navca, describes the new programme as "sharper and more prescriptive". Andy Thornton, chief executive of the Citizenship Foundation, which is making several redundancies after its joint bid with the volunteering charity CSV was rejected, says the subtext to the programme contains some worrying messages. "There was previously a sense that you could say what you wanted and still be a strategic partner," he says. "But this government has its own mantra - big society - and there isn't the same sense of freedom. You are seen as either for or against; there is no room for the critical friend, so more strident criticism is not forthcoming."
There are clear winners and losers in the new programme. The main umbrella bodies have fared best, receiving £1.4m of the £4m awarded this year. Acevo received an extra 33 per cent and was the only successful bidder to bring new partners into the programme - the think tank New Philanthropy Capital and Euclid, the European sector leaders network.
Social enterprise has also done well, with seven organisations sharing £814,000. Sara McGinley, marketing and communications manager at Social Firms UK, says this reflects the government's desire to bring more commercial thinking into the sector. "It's about stimulating the economy through business, and it sees social enterprise as the way to do that," she says.
Several applicants expressed surprise at the absence of equalities groups from the new programme. Voice4Change England, which represents black and minority ethnic charities, is campaigning to reverse the decision. Vandna Gohil, its director, says the decision to exclude equalities organisations "signals a big shift and a complete marginalisation of the BME voice at the policy table".
Vivienne Hayes, chief executive of the Women's Resource Centre, says: "We are very concerned that the needs and concerns of women are not deemed important enough to be gathered in an effective way. The idea that generic organisations can do our job properly is laughable. If they could, our organisation would not exist."
The Consortium of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgendered Voluntary and Community Organisations says the application process, which encouraged organisations to bid in partnership, counted against it because, "given our unique remit, there are no potential partners for merging".
Youth and education charities fared equally poorly, with seven former partners receiving nothing. Youth Action Network, which has about 100 youth organisations as members, will close in September, largely because of its loss of funding. Others face uncertain futures.
Community organisations are also suffering, with five previous partners no longer supported.
A spokeswoman for the social justice organisationCommunity Development Exchange, which received 87 per cent of its income from the old programme, says: "The very organisations that find they are having their funding strangled are often the ones that are best placed to deliver the big society agenda."
Locality, the charity formed this week by the merger of Bassac and the Development Trusts Association, was the only successful community group bidder, and its £497,000 award represented a 65 per cent increase on the pre-merger charities' last settlement - better than anyone.
Steve Wyler, chief executive of Locality, says: "We think we presented a confident vision of what we want to do and how we want to do it."
Of the four volunteering charity bidders, only Volunteering England was successful, although its award was down £1m from last year. Chief executive Justin Davis Smith says: "It is clear the government is looking to strategic partners not only to work more closely with government, but also to work more closely with each other - and we welcome that."
An OCS spokesman says the criteria for the programme were different from in the past. "We will know what they do with their money," he says.
Hurd offered some consolation to the losers on Twitter: "Just because an organisation is no longer a strategic partner of OCS does not mean that it will lose its voice," he wrote. "My door is open."
This week Nick Clegg is bringing out a white paper on social mobility. Somehow I doubt that the power of his words will be enough to repair the terrible damage that his government has already done to the hopes, dreams and life chances of young people.
In former industrial constituencies like mine, ladders of support to help young people get on in life are being systematically kicked away. With 20 universities so far confirming that they will charge the maximum £9,000 tuition fees, university is beginning to look like too big a gamble for many. Others are reeling from the scrapping of the Future Jobs Fund, Connexions and EMA.
Life is already much harder and more competitive for this generation. University is expensive. To get a job after studying, many young people are expected to work for free to get their foot on the ladder. And they may need well-connected parents to arrange an opportunity.
I don't have any confidence that the current crop of ministers have any real understanding of how the distribution of life chances, after a century of huge social progress, are becoming once again highly dependent on money and connections.
In 1911, only one in 14 jobs was could be classed professional. By 1951 this had risen to one in eight jobs, and by 2001 to more than one in three. In 1986, when I left school in the area I now represent, the national staying-on rate in full-time education was 47%. Today it is 86%. With every generation over the last century, life got better – what Ed Miliband calls the promise of Britain.
Families like mine were helped to break out of humble beginnings by a series of crucial public policy interventions – available housing, comprehensive education, the Open University.
But there is still a long way to go to make Britain fairer. And as we look ahead to this century, the prospects for young people – particularly those from the least well-off backgrounds – are uncertain.
On one level, it is a world full of possibilities. New technology has opened things up to new talent and broken down hierarchies and closed systems. But while the world may look more exhilarating, making one's way in it also looks more daunting.
For the first time in generations, parents fear that their children face a tougher struggle to get on in life than they did: new polling shows 71% of people believe life will be harder for the next generation with only 9% believing it will be easier.
I too am worried that we will soon see social mobility go into reverse. When they were in opposition the current government backed Sure Start – in government they have cut the funding available and removed the ringfence that protected it. They said they would protect schools, but they have cut the funding available per pupil. The pupil premium is supposed to help the poorest – but with a black hole in school budgets it doesn't even plug the gap. Meanwhile Michael Gove's elitist English baccalaureate sends a message to some students that they are second class.
The EMA helped the poorest young people to remain in post-16 education – and to stay the course, and to succeed. Michael Gove promised to keep the allowance but has slashed the fund by two thirds and turned a successful scheme into a shambles.
Nick Clegg promised that universities charging £9,000 would be the exception, but with government funding now all but gone they are queueing up to charge the top rate.
It infuriates me when I hear Clegg asking in frustration why people can't understand that they won't have to pay back the debt until they have a well-paid job. It's not that they don't understand, Nick. It's you. They know it's so much harder to have the confidence to aim high in life if you don't have firm foundations beneath you. The less you have the bigger the gamble.
I want a country with a more even spread of life chances – where it's not background, accent or education that shape your future, but the talent you have. I want to see social progress and social mobility increase in this century, not fall into reverse.
This means an approach that starts at birth, building on our pioneering Sure Start programme and taking it further; supporting families to do more to help the next generation.
It means building an economy with more high paid jobs and better routes for progression. It means a much clearer offer for the 50% of young people who will not go to university, with clear routes into the workplace via apprenticeships. Unfairness – like the rise of unpaid internships that make it harder for young people to get into the professions – must be tackled.
The forthcoming white paper will no doubt restate the government's commitment to social mobility. But with Sure Start centres facing closure, and youth unemployment at nearly one million, it won't convince young people.
An equality impact assessment involves assessing the likely or actual effects of policies or services on people in respect of disability, gender and racial equality. It helps us to make sure the needs of people are taken into account when we develop and implement a new policy or service or when we make a change to a current policy or service.
The new Strategic Partners Transition programme has three objectives:
Liverpool Waters and Manchester Airport have been named as two of the first four vanguard Enterprise Zones, which the government hopes will deliver new economic growth. The others identified so far are the Boots Campus in Nottingham and Royal Docks in London.
The new Enterprise Zones reflect the Government's core belief that economic growth and job creation should be led by the private sector. The March Budget announced that the Government would create 21 new Enterprise Zones, within Local Enterprise Partnership areas, with simplified planning rules, super-fast broadband and tax breaks for businesses. It is hoped the areas will have real potential to create new businesses and jobs with wider economic benefits.
The Budget named 11 vanguard Enterprise Zones in total, based within 11 LEPs. In addition to those above, there will be Enterprise Zones in the LEPs led by Greater Birmingham and Solihull, Sheffield City Region, Leeds City Region, Western England (includes Bristol), the Black Country, Tees Valley, and the North East. The exact locations of the zones within these LEPs is still to be confirmed.
The Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Sector Organisations has warned it could also close after the end of a number of contracts and the loss of funding from the strategic partners programme.
Hashmukh Pankhania, chief executive of Cemvo, said it had reduced the number of full-time staff from 10 to three, and the number of project staff had gone from 12 to three.
He said the organisation had only one and a half contracts remaining, worth a total of £117,000. A number of its other contracts had come to an end recently, he said, including one for Essex County Council, which was worth £1.8m to the organisation over the past three years.
Cemvo received £275,953 from the strategic partners programme in 2010/11, but its application for further funding was turned down.
Asked whether he thought the organisation would have to close, Pankhania said it was a possibility but he was trying to remain optimistic about Cemvo being subcontracted for work from the Welfare to Work programme.
"But it's possible that if we don't, we'll have to close or amalgamate with another organisation," he said.
"The future of the organisation is precarious. Our survival depends on the next 12 months. We have to look at different ways of generating income."
Pankhania said Cemvo was closing its offices in Chelmsford, Manchester and Bristol, so only its London office would remain open.
The rural idyll of the village as the last bastion of Englishness is in keeping with the beliefs, hopes and aspirations of many country people, claim researchers from the University of Leicester.
In the wake of the Midsomer Murders furore about notions of Englishness and village life - and the start of a new series of the fictional show - researchers reveal that racism is rife in the English countryside.
Researchers from the Department of Criminology at the University of Leicester found opinions and values – which equate the countryside exclusively and unthinkingly with white Englishness – were far from uncommon amongst white rural residents and were in fact echoed in many rural towns and villages.
The academics spoke out after a media storm arose over comments that the fictional village represented the ‘last bastion of Englishness’ and was therefore devoid of ethnic minorities.
"The countryside was, for a number of those we spoke to, the ‘last bastion’ of old-fashioned Englishness which needed to be preserved from the encroachment of the ‘evils’ of late modernity. Not only that, this idea of Englishness was essentially monocultural, in all its forms – white, heterosexual, middle-class, conformist, family-orientated, church-going, conservative and ‘safe’”, said Jon Garland and Neil Chakraborti who conducted the research.
Writing for Leicester Exchanges, the platform for informed public debate established by the University of Leicester, the academics state: "Minority ethnic incomers were often treated with suspicion as many white rural residents felt that they belonged only in the city, with all its concomitant ‘negative’ attributes of noise, pollution, crime and, crucially for some, multiculturalism. The rural, in their eyes, was an escape from all of those things, and the presence of a minority ethnic family suggested that the city was somehow ‘invading’ the space of the tranquil rural they so treasured.”
The academics, who were subjected to a barrage of abuse and even a death threat in the course of their work, said ethnic minorities living in villages were often the targets of abuse: "Our research found that minority ethnic incomers into the countryside often felt the full force of hostility, whether it be through episodes of so-called ‘low-level’ verbal harassment and hostility, or via (thankfully rare) incidents of violent assault. Families were frequently left feeling isolated, not only from their immediate communities but also from fellow minority ethnic rural residents (who were often scattered, in small numbers, across quite large landscapes).Commonly, they also felt forgotten or overlooked by criminal justice agencies, who seemingly refused to take their victimisation seriously, believing that racism could not be a problem in their area as the number of minority ethnic people living there was relatively low.”
The researchers claim that many people clearly feel very affronted by findings that create a picture of less than a ‘green and pleasant’ countryside for some minority ethnic households - as if by highlighting this issue the academics were somehow challenging the very idea of Englishness itself.
"Perhaps that’s the problem in a nutshell: for many people, notions of Englishness are very much bound up with images of an unspoilt countryside and its gently undulating landscape of farms, cottages and hedgerows, itself a very nostalgic form of national identity redolent of an England left behind many decades ago.
"It also, of course, pre-dates the advent of post-war multiculturalism, and for some white rural residents this is the way that they want it to stay – whatever the realities of modern rural living may actually be.”
Dr Neil Chakraborti and Jon Garland are co-authors of Hate Crime: Impact, Causes and Responses and co-editors of Rural Racism.
Voice4Change are campaigning against the government's refusal to reinstate them as a strategic partner representing minority communities.
The decision, made by the Office for Civil Society (OCS), has meant that Voice4Change including three other equality groups will not receive funding from the strategic partnership programme.
In light of the decision Voice4Change are asking the public to support the campaign by signing their online petition.
Elizabeth Balgobin, chair of Voice4Change, said: "In light of the decision regarding Voice4Change, we ask the government whether they are genuinely committed to building a big, inclusive society. It should reconsider this decision, which closes the door to the BME voice at the top levels of decision-making."
The strategic partners programme, begun in 2006 and was established to build a bridge between government and the third sector to ensure community organisations voices were heard and to initiate change through policy work. Organisations accepted on to the programme will receive a share of £8.2m allocated for the next three years.
Voice4Change England (V4CE) was launched to help give black and minority ethnic (BME) community organisations a stronger voice at a national level, delivery of policy development and to strengthen the voices of disadvantaged minority communities.
To support Voice4Change, sign the petition: Voice4Change Petition
Academics will study the "big society" as a priority, following a deal with the government to secure funding from cuts.
The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) will spend a "significant" amount of its funding on the prime minister's vision for the country, after a government "clarification" of the Haldane principle – a convention that for 90 years has protected the right of academics to decide where research funds should be spent.
Under the revised principle, research bodies must work to the government's national objectives, although the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that ministers will not meddle in individual projects.
It is claimed the AHRC was told that research into the "big society" was non-negotiable if it wished to maintain its funding at £100m a year.
The director of research at Cambridge University's history faculty, Professor Peter Mandler, told the Observer that the AHRC was forced to accept the change by officials working for the minister for higher education, David Willetts, regarded as one of the intellectual driving forces behind the "big society".
Mandler added: "The government says they have rewritten the Haldane principle but they have junked it, basically. They say it is now their right to set the priorities for how this funding [is] distributed. They have got the AHRC over a barrel and basically told these guys that they cannot have their money unless they incorporate [these] research priorities.
"Willetts was negotiating nominally, but the word is that it has come down from the secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, Vince Cable. Almost everyone who hears the story is upset about it. What about curiosity research, blue sky thinking? What is worrying is what won't be researched because of this."
There is growing anger at what the Royal Historical Society (RHS) described as a "gross and ignoble" move to assert government control over research in favour of what one academic labelled a party political slogan.
Professor Colin Jones, president of the RHS, said the move was potentially dangerous for the future of academic study in the country. "It seems to me to be absolutely gross," said Jones.
"In a way, the AHRC should be congratulated for securing a good settlement in a difficult spending round, but there is something slightly ignoble about making the 'big society' a research priority."
He added: "It is government money. They have the right to spend it on what they want, but there is a degree of anxiety about the strings being put on. They are being strengthened, which could be dangerous for independent research."
A principal at an Oxford college, who did not want to be named, said: "With breathtaking speed, a slogan for one political party has become translated into a central intellectual agenda for the academy."
Labour MP and historian Tristram Hunt said he intended to raise the issue in parliament, describing the research priorities as "grotesque". He added: "It is disgraceful that taxpayers' money is being spent on this bogus idea."
It is understood that Oxford University intends to discuss the imposition of "big society" research at the next meeting of its sovereign body, the Oxford congregation, in May.
Gareth Thomas, the shadow minister for higher education, condemned the development and called for transparency from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
He said: "Vince Cable and David Willetts need to explain why he has allowed an ill-thought-out, half-formed Tory election idea to divert precious funding away from genuine research.
"When the government is axing virtually all the funding for the teaching of humanities, social sciences and the arts, wasting critical research monies on the 'big society' is simply unacceptable."
Last month, the prime minister rejected criticisms of the "big society" and said the idea was his driving force. He said: "We do need a social recovery to mend the broken society and to me, that's what the big society is all about."
One of the tasks of research, according to the AHRC's delivery plan, will be to define "difficult to pin down" values in "recent speeches on the big society", such as "fairness, engagement, responsibility, mutuality, individualism [and] selfishness".
A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spoksman insisted that the AHRC itself had proposed the "big society" as a strategic priority.
"Prioritisation of an individual research council's spending within its allocation is not a decision for ministers," she added.
"The government supports [the Haldane] principle as vital for the protection of academic indpendence and excellence."
Wednesday’s annual government Budget has to be understood in light of the more severe changes detailed in last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review. While we welcome some of the measures announced by Chancellor George Osborne, we fear that they will fail to reduce the longstanding disadvantage, lack of opportunity and poverty that many Black and minority ethnic (BME) people experience.
One key announcement was the £630 rise in the personal tax allowance from April 2012. Added to the £1000 rise due to come into force next month, this means that the first £8,015 people earn will be tax-free. This led to claims by the government that it has lifted 1.1 million low paid people out of income tax.
We know that BME people are more likely to experience income poverty. On the face of it, it seems like this measure will help those on low incomes. However, it will not provide any help to people whose income is so low that they don’t pay any tax. Also, if we step back and look at the previously-announced cuts to tax credits and benefits such as Housing Benefit, the effect appears much diluted. Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies argues that changes to tax credits would be a more efficient way of helping poorer households.