§ 11 am
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)
I come to this subject from a lifetime of interest in and support for the principle of voluntary activity and non-governmental organisations. I was for a time a consultant to the Voluntary Services Unit, which was originally a civil service department. The unit was subsequently moved into the Home Office, and I believe that it never recovered from that. Among my numerous voluntary activities, I am a trustee of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Community Service Volunteers.
We live in a fast-changing world in which the issue of world governance is becoming more important every day, making the position of NGOs, nationally and internationally, more important than ever before. There are several reasons for that. First, the number of NGOs has increased enormously: a 1996 study shows that, in India, more than 1 million NGOs were registered in one form or another. In this country, at the latest count, there were 187,000 charities, and charities form only a small part of the NGO scene. Secondly, the wealth and sophistication of NGOs has increased sharply. Thirdly, NGOs are used increasingly as the agents of or consultants to Governments, or as analysts and commentators on the media.
What are NGOs? The Department for International Development's definition of NGOs is so wide as to be misleading. It includes:All civic organisations, associations and networks which occupy the "social spare" between the family and the state except firms and political parties: and who come together to advance their common interests through collective action. Includes volunteer and charity groups, parents and teachers associations, senior citizens groups, sports clubs, arts and culture groups, faith-based groups, workers clubs and trades unions, non-profit think-tanks and "issue-based" activist groups. By definition, all such civic groups are non-government organisations (NGOs). The NGOs which have come together under the banner of global civil society to campaign on globalisation-related issues constitute a sub-set of broader civil society.So you name it, we are talking about it.
Many high-profile NGOs derive much of their income from government. As a trustee of CSV, I am delighted that, over 35 years, it has so often been supported by public money to pursue not only the Government's but often, I am glad to say, its own agenda. CSV has earned that trust through many years of high-quality work, but we need to look closely at how NGOs are chosen by the Government and media and why.
Whom do NGOs represent? Are they the result of the enthusiasm of an individual or of a group acting altruistically? If I had wanted to pursue a higher-profile career than my obscure Back-Bench career, I would have started my own NGO. There is no quicker way of attracting media support than to start an NGO, possibly using a laptop computer. If one does that, makes a few contacts and utters some outrageous remarks, one can often attract the type of support that makes it easier to raise money. Some of the individuals from NGOs who are often seen on television or heard on the radio do not have much of a hinterland of credibility, and that is one of the reasons for today's debate.
241WH Some NGOs may represent the interests of a member group. One of the most successful and welcome interest groups started in recent years, for example, was the group set up by children leaving care to represent themselves. That is a remarkable example of how, by getting themselves organised, an oppressed and marginalised group can change the nature of the debate about themselves and improve their status. Of course, if trade unions were included as NGOs, they would have an absolutely explicit self-interest in their operation.
Do NGOs represent their subscribers? Quite a few NGOs seem to rate their success on the size of their subscription lists. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, I believe, has the largest subscription list of any NGO in the United Kingdom, but does it represent the interests of its subscribers or the interests of those who manage it?
Do NGOs represent their funders? Quite a few NGOs seem to make little effort to attract support from the general public. Indeed, in recent years, many NGOs have cut back quite far on their education role, the RSPB being a notable exception. However, many NGOs are quite happy to find a source of funds—a public agency, the Government or a trust—and one wonders whether they represent themselves or the interests of the funders.
Does it matter whom NGOs represent? Do they represent the poor and disadvantaged? A host of NGOs, at home and abroad, claim to represent the poor and disadvantaged. I have no doubt that they are run by people whose aim it is to do exactly that. However, many of them have no personal experience of poverty or disadvantage and are often strangely resistant to including on the board or in the trustee membership representatives of those for whom they claim to speak. I shall return in a moment to one notable international example of that bad practice.
Perhaps, whether they realise it or not, some NGOs represent the rich and influential. Clearly, some NGOs deliberately set out to represent the rich and influential. I cannot believe that members of the Country Landowners Association, for example, would think that their organisation was successful if it represented only the poor. However, as there are often no poor people in those groups, those groups may well perpetuate an out-of-date view of society.
Perhaps I may enumerate some of the categories. An interesting example—one of the most formative of my time—was the Child Poverty Action Group. The enthusiasm of an individual, with a very able ally, changed the way in which NGOs could work in this country. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) hit on a remarkable key: if two or three Members of Parliament could be persuaded to take an interest, the entire fabric of the Government information service could be opened to an organisation, at no particular cost. He was extraordinarily successful in that. Funnily enough, on my way to the debate, I met the right hon. Gentleman, and I mentioned that I intended to use him as an example. He told me something that is very germane to the debate.
Early in its life, the Child Poverty Action Group was given quite a large cheque by Lord Windlesham, who was the Cabinet Minister responsible for the Voluntary Services Unit when I first joined it. There was some 242WH difficulty in delivering the cheque because the Child Poverty Action Group had so few staff that there was no one to open the door. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead took the cheque and said, "I hope that you do not expect me necessarily to support all that you say." Lord Windlesham replied, "I very much hope that you will bite the hand that feeds you regularly and ambitiously." As the right hon. Gentleman said, one wonders sometimes whether the same degree of altruistic masochism is available in government today.
Those who represent the interests of a member group were well exemplified by the United States trade unionists demonstrating at Seattle. Although they pretended that they were interested in the world's poor, they were in fact demonstrating against the World Trade Organisation because of exaggerated anxiety that American jobs would be lost if that organisation succeeded in liberalising world trade.
I suppose that a good example of one of the subscribing organisations is the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The well-known and interesting controversies that have split the RSPCA over a number of years demonstrate that NGOs are often in difficulties if the management moves too far from the interests of the subscribers.
On the funding issue, I sometimes worry that the aims of an NGO become distorted to fit in with the funding criteria of donors. As someone who has spent too much of the past two and a half years raising money for various organisations, I am conscious that writing an application for money is a skill learned with difficulty. It is important not to allow the desire for the money to distort the purpose of the NGO.
The business of middle or upper-class people representing the poor has taken a step forward lately. Organisations such as the Save the Children Fund and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, to name but two, are making much more effort to collect and act on the views of the client group. Both at home and abroad the Save the Children Fund has produced some excellent publications, which are little more than collations of children's voices. That is an important advance. Any of the categories that I have mentioned seem legitimate, but it is essential that, outside and inside the NGO, the group that one represents at any time should be made clear and recognised. That is often confused and hidden, and is sometimes examined reluctantly.
At home and abroad, NGO policy is shaped by trustees, yet how are trustees chosen? It is more than 30 years since I read Ben Whitaker's book about the big charitable foundations. In it, he pointed out that the trustees were really a self-selecting group of friends and that, whatever one felt about the appropriateness, altruism or competence of the people chosen, the trustees came almost inevitably from a group that would perpetuate what was already there. That was scarcely a recipe for radical advance. The same is true of most NGOs, which have difficulty recruiting trustees of the quality that they want, and so often ask the existing trustees for suggestions. A self-perpetuating oligarchy arises. That may work extremely effectively, but one should carefully consider how trustees are chosen when considering the accountability of NGOs. I understand that the Consumers Association, for example, is trying 243WH hard to improve the way in which it chooses its trustees, but I do not know many examples of good practice in the field.
We also need to ask about the degree of control exercised by Governments or Government agencies. The departmental rules, or those of an agency, have an enormous effect on the nature of the work of NGOs. For the many NGOs that have become increasingly dependent on public money, the rules become a form of control. One striking example is that, so far as I can see, the lottery will not entertain applications from explicitly Christian groups. I do not know why, but it was certainly the case with JC2000, and colleagues have told me that it was the case with several other applications.
§ Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)
The hon. Gentleman has much experience on this matter, and we have worked closely together in the all-party parliamentary group on charities. I want to draw his attention to something that he has not yet mentioned, which is the Government compact on the relationships between Departments and the organisations that they fund. The first undertaking in the Government's compact isTo recognise and support the independence of the sector, including its right within the law to campaign, to comment on Government policy, and to challenge that policy, irrespective of any funding relationship that might exist, and to determine and manage its own affairs.Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the compact, introduced recently by the Government, has helped to establish the independence of the sector? The concerns that he raised have been dealt with fully in the new compact, as it contains commitments made by the Government.
§ Mr. Rowe
I profoundly agree that the aspiration is clear. I welcome it and hope that that is the case. It is fair to say that what has been made explicit is what was always intended to be the case. I shall watch with interest and hope to see what works out in practice.
I acted as consultant to the community development projects at the Home Office a long time ago, and I remember visiting a project. When we arrived, the young people running the project complained that they received little support from the local authority. As I had walked up the rather grotty stairs—I think that the project was in Liverpool 8 or somewhere like that—I passed a series of newspaper pictures of local councillors under the heading, "Know your enemy". It seems that projects should exercise some tact and restraint if they want support.
An important issue is the extent to which NGOs compete for attention, members and funds, which can be extraordinarily destructive. Competition often leads to inappropriate behaviour such as exaggerations that are unsustainable when examined. Some of the hype about global issues that we hear from organisations such as the World Development Movement does not stand examination in the full light of day. It is rare for big NGOs to be as gracious as Greenpeace, which admitted that it had grossly exaggerated the risks from Brent Spar. There is unquestionably a suspicion that an organisation must have a high profile to keep up the flow of donor money, particularly subscriber money. In these 244WH media-driven days, that often means making exaggerated statements. That is important, because it can lead to bad behaviour.
I shall give one example from overseas, which I realise is not fair on the Minister, because he is not responsible for international affairs. I happen to know an African nun, who spends her days looking after refugees in Goma for an indigenous NGO. When the refugee crisis blew up, international aid agencies poured in to offer humanitarian support, but they paid far more than the local going rate, so all the drivers from the local NGO were taken away. Other terrible resource famines for the local NGOs followed as a result of that competition from rich, well-funded organisations from abroad. As the nun and her organisation had only wind-up telephones, they asked to use the e-mail facilities of the big international organisations, but the foreign NGOs refused. Such behaviour is disgraceful and inexcusable, particularly when a large number of those organisations have now left Goma, and the indigenous NGO is trying to pick up the pieces.
Michael Edwards, who wrote an interesting pamphlet for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, says that another danger is that NGOs are famous for their advocacy of pre-determined positions, often couched in terms of strong opposition to the status quo. Hostility to the status quo often rather outruns the research or factual base on which it is placed.
Much is being done. At home, we have for some years had fund-raising codes and a professional association of charitable fund-raisers. Codes for governance are increasingly being introduced, talked about and shared. Abroad, the Sphere humanitarian charter, for example, and minimum standards in disaster response will, one hopes, over time diminish the disgraceful behaviour that I have described.
Given that NGOs in their different forms are an essential, widespread and growing feature of our democracy, we must ensure that they work as well as they can, that they are seen to be wholly transparent, that they know whose interests they represent and that they make that clear to other people. We must ensure that NGOs are not an unnecessary intermediary between citizen and Government.
I am glad to be retiring before the full impact of the IT revolution strikes this place. The arrival of e-mails by the bucketful and instant access to every Member of Parliament foolish enough to have posted a web page will create enormous pressures by increasing the work load and people's expectations of Members of Parliament. I sometimes wonder whether the prophets of doom who say that we have lost all our influence and purpose may be proved right. I hope not, but Rowe's law of institutions is that an institution obtains optimum facilities only when it no longer has serious work to perform. Every time I pass Portcullis house, I think that that may be the case. When institutions are at their most powerful, they often work in difficult conditions—usually up a back stair somewhere.
§ Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)
The hon. Gentleman is making important points about how voluntary organisations need to involve the people whom they represent, and minor points about how organisations should be more subtle in the way in which 245WH they work. Is he arguing that the Government should become more involved in the functioning of NGOs? Surely the fact that they are non-governmental organisations creates some tension on that point, and there should be distance between them and Government. Could he clarify his position on that? He also said that some organisations were well funded. However, most of the organisations that he is talking about are very stretched. Although some of the organisations are large, they have to make difficult decisions about how they spend their money. I would not like us to leave members of the public thinking that they can relax and keep their money in their pockets when there are worthy causes that need increased and continual support.
§ Mr. Rowe
I am grateful for both parts of that intervention. Government should not get involved in the inner workings or objectives of NGOs; that would be quite wrong. As I said, the Government should stay well away from NGOs, and cheerfully fund organisations that might attack or criticise the Government—as long as it is done responsibly. That is very important. On funding, there is no well-run, effective NGO or charity that cannot find more causes to support, more people to help and more services to run, and there will always be a need for more money. However, there are worrying trends that show that the public's willingness to give on a continuing basis rather than in response to a particular crisis is diminishing. In a society that is getting richer, that is a tragedy. I welcome the measures that the Chancellor has taken to make it easier for people to give in a tax-efficient way.
I have spoken for long enough. I wanted to highlight the fact that, as we enter the new century, it is of paramount importance that as a society we work out NGOs' appropriate place and method of operation as they become ever more influential it the body politic.
§ Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)
I thank the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) for raising an important and topical issue. He argues that we need proper accountability of NGOs for two main reasons. The first is that the growing power of NGOs may undermine democratically elected Governments. The second is that, as the work of NGOs can be undermined if Governments are undermined, controls are in the interests of NGOs themselves.
The hon. Gentleman's arguments were measured. Indeed, they were slightly more measured than his press release on the debate—I received it not via e-mail, but by good old fax—which was entitled "World conscious or world con: who do the NGOs think they are?" Such statements are slightly over the top and do not help the debate. However, as I said, his comments today were measured. Additionally, when my staff complain about their working conditions, I shall quote them Rowe's law.
§ Mr. Oaten
Indeed; perhaps it is an example of, as the Leader of the Opposition might say, "all spin and no substance".
The events at Seattle have made the NGO issue particularly topical and, especially in the past six months, brought the work of NGOs into the public domain. It is right to recognise the enormous growth of NGOs. According to United Nations figures there are approximately 25,000 international NGOs, which is an enormous increase on the number 10 years ago.
Globalisation has had a big impact on NGOs. Whereas the boundaries and responsibilities of Governments are limited, those of NGOs can be incredibly wide. NGOs have been able to respond to changes in how the world operates—much faster than Governments with their democratic confines and restricted boundaries ever can. NGOs are running much further ahead. Concern was raised in this country about quangos, which assumed responsibility for work previously undertaken by the Government, and the loss of democratic accountability that they entailed. Parallel concerns can be discerned in relation to the work of NGOs.
Before I highlight my concerns about the operation of NGOs, it might be worth highlighting some of the useful work that they perform. They have become powerful and are, to some extent, victims of their own success. The most prominent recent example is the Jubilee 2000 campaign against land mines, which succeeded in changing Government attitudes. I congratulate the Government on their prompt response to that agenda. That example shows that NGOs can be powerful forces for bringing individuals together and making a real difference in legislation.
NGOs are also enormously helpful to Members of Parliament in performing our role. I could not have made some of my speeches of the past three or four years without the briefing work done by various groups. When I was appointed disability spokesman for the Liberal Democratic party—I am being completely honest about this—I did not have a clue about the disability sector. However, I was helped by the brilliant work of the Royal National Institute for the Blind, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. Scope, Mencap and other such organisations, all of which provided briefing material that was supplied, of course, to hon. Members of all political persuasions. The Government worked closely with the disability sector and learned much from its knowledge. No one should underestimate the powerful impact of such organisations in supplying us with material and briefing notes, which we use endlessly in our debates.
NGOs are trusted in a way that politicians will never be. The public has a high regard for NGOs. The Edelman group recently did some survey work and discovered that NGOs were six and a half times more trusted than business and companies, and many more times trusted than politicians. If we take the example of the recent scare story in the press about genetically modified food, we find that people believe the NGOs more than politicians and even the scientists. We must 247WH recognise the enormous power of NGOs in that respect. That is one reason why the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent is right about the need for some control.
§ Mr. Hope
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will refer later to the research of Dr. Alan Hudson, who said:The values which NGOs hold and promote, and the advocacy position they take, derive from experience in, and links with the South.He was explaining the NGOs' role in international development, and went on to say:It was their experience of working at a grassroots level, implementing projects and programmes in a wide range of contexts that gave them the legitimacy to advocate about development issues.Do not organisations such as Oxfam—I have had personal experience of working with it—gain legitimacy and accountability through their work, which makes them such powerful advocates for the poor in developing countries?
§ Mr. Oaten
The hon. Gentleman is right. NGOs can get to the places that others cannot. They are often there on the ground—whether holding meetings with blind people in the case of the RNIB, placing individuals in famine areas, or having the ability to enter and play a critical part in war zones. The public trust them simply because they are not governments and politicians; they can go into places that are inaccessible to those officials.
In Seattle, there was much talk about the difficulties faced by NGOs. I understand—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that a member of Action Aid was part of the British Government delegation. The Government thus showed how much they want NGOs to be part of the briefing process.
The NGOs are victims of their own success. They have more power and money than before, but with that power and money have come the critical requirements to take more responsibility and be more accountable. Money, as ever, is at the heart of the debate.
About 40 per cent. of the money to NGOs comes from grants, and people must be confident that public money is being used in the right way. However, regardless of whether the money comes from Government or from someone shaking a tin or writing a standing order, a proper process must be in place to account for it. The accountability trail in many NGOs—unlike those involving big business, political parties and Members of Parliament—is difficult to follow. However, although Oxfam does not regard itself as having shareholders in the same way as a company does and the link is much harder to see, anyone who drops money into a tin or goes into an Oxfam shop is by definition a shareholder.
There is anxiety that the big increase in NGOs will lead to overkill. Those working in Kosovo were worried when it was described as an NGO playing field; far too many organisations were trying to get a piece of the action. That is a big danger, and we should consider it when discussing reform of NGOs. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed alarm at the operation of some of those organisations, and we must tackle the issue.
248WH As the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent said, NGOs are driven by the need for a high profile on the international scene, to keep the money coming in. The anxiety is that competition for money may drive some NGOs into in appropriate places, or to compete with other NGOs so that their logo appears on the 9 o'clock or 10 o'clock news—or whenever it is—which may be part of their campaign to raise money. Such competition will not help individuals in Sudan, Kosovo or anywhere else.
It is worrying that some agencies take a short-term view, but they know that to obtain funds they have to make an impact quickly when flood or famine strikes. That is not good for an organisation's long-term fund raising, but it is necessary because the public are motivated when they see images of disasters. That issue must be considered when we examine the development of NGOs.
The organisations have recognised some of the difficulties and are seeking solutions. Some groups involved in peacetime campaigning activities worked together as part of Jubilee 2000, which was a model of how organisations can pull together and use their joint experience to get a single message across. We must apply the lessons learned in Jubilee 2000 to emergency and wartime activities. Establishing a co-ordination committee in Kosovo, for example, would help ensure that, rather than NGOs doubling-up activities, each one would take on a particular task, with one focusing on children, one on food, one on disease, and so on. NGOs should work closely through a co-ordinating committee, with clear lines of accountability.
We also need to re-examine the current UN guidelines. The UN has to recognise that the world is moving on and that its guidelines and vetting processes need revising and updating. There are also arguments for some form of independent monitoring and the strengthening of existing structures. There may be a role for ombudsmen to examine the work. However, if the Minister were to suggest heavy Government regulation in this sphere, I would be reluctant to endorse it. I am a fan of self-regulation when possible, and some NGOs are implementing it very effectively. The best way forward is to get individuals to do it themselves.
This is an important debate. However, let us not lose sight of the incredible work that is being done. Let us not use language that would in any way undermine the fundraising ability of those organisations. For their sake, let us recognise that the world has moved on. NGOs are working in a growing sphere, and they are extraordinarily well-respected—more so than Members of Parliament will ever be. We need to support them to ensure that they maintain their good reputation.
§ Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)
It is good to be part of this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) on securing it, and on the remarks that he has made. He is a distinguished parliamentarian, and I am sad to learn that he is retiring at the next election. He has always spoken up for the underdog, but has also been prepared to challenge orthodoxy and the establishment, and he has sought to do that this morning.
249WH I know, from some of the phone calls that we have received, that my hon. Friend's press release caused a stir in certain quarters, as I am sure it was intended to do. That is no bad thing, because although I am about to make a speech that is broadly supportive of NGOs and their work as I have encountered it during my time as Conservative party spokesman for international development, a wake-up call is sometimes good. The organisations are often one step removed from direct accountability to a third party, and it is good for any organisation to examine itself and ask whether it represents the people that it was set up to represent—whether it is still focusing on its core group, its core business. I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising the issue, on his remarks and on his important career to date. I do not agree that he would have made a bigger splash if he had set up his own NGO—he has made a massive contribution in what he chose to do.
I also want to affirm my belief in the big wide world of NGOs. It was interesting to hear again the definition of an NGO. NGOs are those charities and voluntary groups that we know as civil society. They are important—a famous Conservative once described them as "small platoons". They provide a link between the private individual, the family and the state. If we consider for a moment what our society would be like if we had just the state and private individuals, we should be thankful for the existence of the NGO sector and its work.
In the past two and a half years, I have seen some wonderful examples of high-quality work by British NGOs. It is invidious of me to mention but a few, just as it would be if I was thanking people on the occasion of receiving an Oscar and left out my mother, but I will briefly mention four projects that have particularly impressed me.
I shall start with the work of Oxfam in the slums of Nairobi. I have been to some wonderful places in the past years, made horrible by the things that human beings have done to them and to each other, and those slums were the worst that I have seen, smelt or encountered. They are characterised by a sense of hopelessness and despair. However, Oxfam has, by speaking up on behalf of the many thousands of people living there, brought some hope. It is continuing to work there when it seems that everyone else has forgotten about those people. I remember that, having visited those slums in the morning, I sat down with some politicians in the afternoon and said, "What are you doing about those slums? What are you going to do about the people living like this?" I was met by blank expressions, as if to say, "Well, what's it got to do with us?" Thank goodness for Oxfam's work in Nairobi.
I saw a project in Kenya in which the Tear Fund got people together to install a pump that is serving three villages. That means that instead of walking four hours every morning to bring back dirty water for their families to wash in, to cook with, and to wash their clothes, several hundred women—it is always the women in so many developing countries—have access to clean water. It is literally on tap; they have to walk only five minutes to it. The elders of those villages had come together; they knew how to maintain and safeguard the pump. It was a sustainable project. The elders spoke with such pride of the difference that the Tear Fund had made to their lives and I thought, "Thank heavens for that project."
250WH I saw the work of World Vision in Rwanda with orphans. I am sure that we are all aware that in genocides such as in Rwanda, thousands of children's parents are killed overnight. I met one girl called Alphonsine. Both her parents had been killed on the same day and at the age of nine she had no choice but to try and bring up her three younger brothers on her own. She is now 15 and has been acting as mother and older sister for all these years on her own except for the support of World Vision. Many other NGOs are doing fine work over there. For that young lady, coping in that terribly difficult situation, thank goodness that World Vision was making a difference.
I could go on, as I have seen so many wonderful things, but I will just mention Christian Aid, which supports internally displaced people in Colombia. These are people whom the drug barons have displaced and the world has largely forgotten. Christian Aid has not forgotten them. Thank heavens for the people who put money in the tins and envelopes each year. My experience of NGOs' and charities' work abroad has been positive. Of course, some projects are more impressive than others, but that is the nature of things.
In the past two years, I have been overseeing something that we call in the Conservative party listening to Britain's Churches. It is actually listening to Britain's Christian and other faith communities. We have met more than 300 faith-based groups in the country, learning about the work that they are doing. I accept that one does not have to be a religious person to help one's fellow man or woman, but the reality today is that many of our charities are faith-based. We would really notice the wonderful work being done by those unsung heroes if they stopped doing it. It is an impressive display of human endeavour. I want to affirm the work that is being done in our country.
I come to the debate, which I welcome, with some knowledge of what NGOs are doing both abroad and at home. I have not seen everything, but I have seen a fair amount in the past two or three years. It is important to consider for a moment the nature of most NGOs. I will talk in a few seconds about some of the large multinational organisations. I am not sure whether they are also NGOs. Most NGOs are started by a small group of people, who are motivated by one reason or another to do something worthwhile in their community or overseas. Many of these NGOs stay small, focused and local—and that is great—but many of them grow into large organisations. I understand that it was a handful of people meeting around a kitchen table in the 1950s because they were concerned about world poverty who set up Oxfam. That is the nature of many of our excellent NGOs-Save the Children, Barnados, the Shaftesbury Society. They started small, with one person or a handful of concerned people, and have grown as organisations. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent is right to make the case for ensuring that, as they grow and change, they continue to carry out their original purpose, do not lose sight of their core mission, and are accountable to their subscribers and stakeholders—a modern expression which I am sure that my hon. Friend will embrace, even though he does not embrace e-mails as much as some of us do. The issue is one of accountability to stakeholders, whether they are the people whom the NGO is trying to help or the people from whom it receives money.
251WH Some organisations have grown into national and international organisations. Many of them still do a fantastic job. However, there is a risk that increased size and bureaucracy will force one or two of our larger domestic charities to lose sight of their core focus. It is useful for all such organisations to take stock occasionally.
My experience is that whether they were started 100 years ago, or 10 years ago, many of our charities and NGOs do a first-class job. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent and the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) are right to raise the issue of independence. The essence of many successful NGOs is their independence. The House was asked whether we wanted the Government to be more involved. The Conservative party jolly well does not want to be more involved in the life of NGOs when we come back to government. We want them to get on with it. I shall come on to describe how we want the Government to get out of the way and remove some of the obstacles to their work.
We believe in the vitality and independence of charities and organisations. It is probably a mistake for them to become dependent on Government funding. It is probably a road along which there is no way back. While it is necessary for most charities and NGOs to take some Government money and local authority grants and a good idea to get involved in a contractual relationship with the Government or a local authority to deliver a project, it is a bad idea for them to become dependent on Government money. Above all, the presence of NGOs in our country is a reminder to all of us that the state cannot do it all, although it does some things very well at local and national level. No matter how motivated civil servants and bureaucrats might be, it is impossible for them to get to the nitty-gritty out there.
John Bird, who launched that great project The Big Issue—we have all seen and bought it, although I suspect that few of us read it—told me that the last thing that a homeless person needs is a home. That seemed a strange thing to say, but he meant that they need a friend. They need someone who can get alongside them and help them to tackle the problem that has put them on the streets in the first place, whether it is drug dependency, alcoholism or some other crisis in their life. Homeless people need counselling and to learn job and life skills to increase their confidence and self-esteem. There is no doubt that many NGOs and charities are far better placed to provide that support than the Government could ever be.
Is it not one of the silent scandals in our country that so many young children under Governments of whatever colour move from local authority care into oblivion? It is no good our thinking that they all have a social worker ringing them up every other day to find out how they are getting on, as that just does not happen in reality. Charities are far better placed to get alongside to provide the support that vulnerable people need. No wonder a third of the people on the streets of London come from local authority care. That is not to criticise local authorities, but there is a shortfall in our provision, and it cannot be met by the state. It is a role that we want to see more and more charities moving into.
252WH We should celebrate the existence of charities. They are the little platoons that make our society work, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent says, there are issues of accountability. It is important to raise those issues. Ultimately, all charities—although not all NGOs are charities—are responsible to the Charity Commission and through it ultimately to the Home Office. If we are honest, most of our charities today will be troubled by the Charity Commission only if a major scandal is drawn to their attention. The Charity Commission is not there to give charities a nudge and a wink, to guide them or to hold them to account on a day-to-day basis. The Home Office has got far too many other things to do to be able to watch over all the NGOs, and we would not want it to do so. It is important for NGOs to be accountable to their stakeholders, because we cannot expect the Charity Commission or the Government to hold them to account.
When Governments enter into contractual arrangements with NGOs and charities, it is legitimate for them to carry out careful checks on the work that each charity has been doing and to set specific targets. Most important, they should monitor the outcomes of the work that NGOs carry out on their behalf. The key question that Governments should ask themselves before entering into such relationships is, "What works?" They should set specific targets and monitor them against outcomes.
I support the move made by the Department for International Development towards longer-term relationships with its service providers in preference to the awful competitive tendering process, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent said, can be destructive, time-wasting and expensive in the NGO sector. It is important for Departments to enter into long-term contractual relationships based on partnership.
I turn to a matter for which the Minister does not have direct responsibility, although I hope that he can pass my concerns on to his colleagues at DFID. Some of our larger charities face an increasing number of requests for bank guarantees to back up the work that they do for DFID. That is unfortunate, because unless NGOs put most or all of the value of the guarantee into a bank account, the bank will not give a guarantee. Consequently, precious resources are being locked away in bank accounts instead of being made available for important work.
§ Mr. Streeter
My hon. Friend is right. It is important not to discourage applications from smaller charities. The application processes should not be so bureaucratic and difficult that only large charities have sufficient resources to apply. Smaller organisations are often discouraged from applying by the prospect of payment in arrears when they have had to fund the work up front. We shall want to put that right when we return to government.
253WH It is true that DFID is a far better payer than the European Union of grants to aid agencies for humanitarian work. The quality of the EU aid programme has been a scandal for many years, and I hope that that will be put right in the next 12 months. Many of the charities and aid agencies that I speak to have been waiting for payment for six months or more, which places them in real difficulties when they have already done the work.
Will the Minister comment on bank guarantees or write to me in due course? If it is more appropriate, I would be happy for him to pass the matter on to his colleagues in DFID. It is right to monitor, but bank guarantees and bonds are over the top. After all, Governments should not enter into contractual relationships with organisations if they are concerned about the quality of their work. That is the biggest safeguard of all.
I am a great fan of much of the work of NGOs and charities that I have seen over the past two-and-a-half years. However, in respect of some leading charities—my experience has centred on those that work in international development, but I suspect that it also applies on the domestic front—there is an unattractive level of duplication, especially in the realm of advocacy. I am all for such organisations acting as advocates: it is important to put pressure on people such as the Minister to influence him to make even better decisions. I accept that that is a legitimate role for NGOs. However, in the past two years my desk has been flooded with glossy publications from NGOs, in which they advocate certain policy approaches. Given that these publications often say the same thing, why on earth do NGOs not get together to produce a single document?
I agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) about Jubilee 2000. It is an example of an effective campaign that is well on the way to persuading this Government and Governments overseas to do more in terms of debt relief. There are two key points to make in this regard. First, Churches and charities worked together to produce joint publications, and there was joint advocacy. Secondly, they had a clear focus. NGOs should recognise that there is too much wasteful duplication, particularly in the realm of advocacy, which does not constitute value for money. If they were to come together and co-ordinate to produce a single document, they would get a better response from people such as me.
§ Mr. Streeter
I am delighted that my hon. Friend agrees with me, and I am pleased to hear that those organisations have come together. That is certainly the way forward. In every other sector of society of which I have experience—my real job was as a lawyer advising business people—mergers, acquisitions, collaborations and partnership deals take place. There needs to be more of that in the NGO sector.
Some of the multilateral organisations that have been active in the past two and a half years—the Minister may want to correct me, but I think that they are in the 254WH NGO sector—are less than impressive. I wonder to whom some of those organisations are accountable. If I mention the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the Minister will rightly say that they are accountable through the Chancellor to Parliament—although I have no idea what he would say about the World Trade Organisation. Many United Nations organisations are theoretically accountable through various committees to the Secretary-General and the General Assembly. However, the reality is that many are not accountable on a daily basis. In real terms, many large UN organisations are accountable only to themselves. That is a genuine problem.
I agree with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent and the hon. Member for Winchester about developments in the Balkans. Some fantastic work has been undertaken in the Balkans in the past five years, but on visiting the region—I have done so four times in the past two years, so I speak with some experience—one gets the impression of a complete NGO takeover. The restaurants are full of English-speaking people—although English is perhaps not their native language. NGO staff wages completely dominate and upset the local economy and wage rates, and the streets are full of white 4x4 vehicles that are smothered with NGO logos. One wonders whether profile is more important than delivery for some of these organisations. Lack of accountability, too much competition, terrible overlap and NGO overkill are real issues. Although the problem is difficult, Governments can tackle it by recognising that, in selecting partners in contractual relationships, it is important to consider the work that an NGO does, rather than its ability to market itself. If Governments and local government can do that, we will be well on the road to working with the right people.
I shall finish by touching on the important issue of faith-based charities, which my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent raised en passant. It is clearly nonsense to argue that one must have a personal faith in order to be motivated to help one's fellow men. Nor is it true to say that all NGOs and charities that are active in this country or abroad are driven by faith-based people. However, it is true that in this sector, a lot of work is done by those of a religious persuasion. People are increasingly experiencing difficulties in obtaining grants from the Government, the National Lottery Charities Board and local government. We do not want any organisation to become dependent on Government grants, but a small grant can sometimes unlock a problem and put the organisation on its way. Grant-making bodies in this country are increasingly saying to organisations, "You have been successful and we want to support you, but we shall not do so if you continue to operate as a Christian organisation or Muslim organisation." I have had many conversations during the past two years with Christian and Muslim groups and groups of other faiths, and the problem is increasing.
The Minister may be unable to reply today, but it is important that the Government bring an end to discrimination against religious groups in the grant-making process. Such discrimination is taking place all over the country, although I do not believe that that is the Government's intention. The problem is that it is the religious persuasion of the people concerned that 255WH produces the results because their faith is the essence of their organisation. The Government and local government are saying, "We want the results, but we do not like your label or your methods." However, the reality is that if those organisations changed their methods, they would not obtain the same results.
§ Mr. Hope
My experience as a former county councillor on a grants panel which issued grants to voluntary organisations is that church or faith-based groups received grants if they could demonstrate that their doors were open to all people in their community. It was not that they could not obtain grants, but that they had to be inclusive in delivering their services. Most faith-based groups support that approach because it avoids discrimination. Grants should be given to groups that provide services to the whole community, not to their faith-based community only. That builds inclusion into local communities.
§ Mr. Streeter
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about inclusiveness and serving the whole community, which I accept, but grants may be denied because organisations employ the people whom they want to help or perhaps because they pray with them. Grant-makers may believe that this is wacky in the 21st century, but it may be a way of providing care and help to people. This matter is important and I call on the Minister to examine it more closely. I welcome the fact that during the run-up to the next general election, in whichever year it comes, the Churches are getting their act together and lobbying prospective parliamentary candidates.
In conclusion, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent has done the House and nongovernmental organisations a service in introducing the debate. It would be sensible if those organisations reexamined their accountability. I want to leave no doubt that my experience and that of my hon. Friend and all hon. Members in the Chamber today is that the work of non-governmental organisations in this country and beyond is, by and large, excellent, of high quality and changes people lives. We strongly support their work because all of us, but especially the most vulnerable among us, would be poorer without it.
§ 12.8 pm
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) on securing this worthwhile and important debate, to which a number of positive and helpful contributions have been made. His record is outstanding and well known, and when I was an Education Minister we had a dialogue on some of the issues.
I was not aware that the hon. Gentleman is leaving the House until he said so earlier today. I want to put on record my respect, and that of my party, for his consistent work on the issue. One regrets that the liberal, caring conservatism that he represents is steadily leaving the Opposition; that is a shame for society as a whole. However, I am sure that Opposition Front Benchers will do what they can to rectify that in future. I pay real tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work—which has been outstanding, well known and appropriate.
256WH I apologise for my presence here in the absence of the Minister of State, Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), whose responsibilities include this work. He is unable to be here today, and I regret that I am here in his place. However, I was fascinated to hear the debate. I have worked with voluntary and community organisations in various capacities, and some of the comments made today were resonant.
The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent mentioned the large foundations—I worked at the Gulbenkian Foundation, where my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) started—and he was right in what he said. I have also worked with voluntary and community organisations in inner-city London. Although I am not a churchman, I also echo the comments of the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) about the important role of faith groups of all descriptions as the glue for the way in which many organisations work. I heard a Labour politician say that he would not give money to voluntary and community of organisations. His philosophy was simple: if a project was worth funding, the council would do so; but it if was not worth funding, the council would not do so. That was a conventional view.
I want to place on record my agreement with what has been said by all hon Members in this debate. The view that I have characterised is out of time and wrong. An important contribution can and must be made by non-governmental organisations of many types, whether in small urban communities or in great war zones of the world. Independent organisations are vital because they may be able to help when the state cannot and individuals are not empowered to do so without support. That view is generally shared across the country.
Before being elected to the House, I worked with a number of organisations. Reference has been made to UNICEF and the RSPCA, and I recognise many of the points that have been made. The Government have a strong commitment to value the part played by voluntary and community organisations in improving the fabric of society and enhancing the quality of life of many people. I assure the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) that the Government do not want a regulatory heavy hand in the matter. Partnership based on independence and mutual respect is the way forward. A heavy hand that over-regulates and over-bureaucratises is not the way forward.
The Government provide £4 billion of the sector's annual income, which is divided almost equally between grants and purchases, including contracts. That is a substantial resource, so there must be accountability. The comments of the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent on the way in which some organisations are established as campaigning organisations were interesting.
The hon. Member for Winchester referred to the opinion-forming role of campaigning organisations, but the role of local, national and world media has been omitted. As he rightly said, globalisation makes it possible for the hon. Member for South-West Devon, for example, to take a photograph of a slum in Nairobi and for that picture, with the views of the organisation concerned, to be sent around the world instantaneously. Technology has transformed the position from that 257WH which existed 20 or 30 years ago. The hon. Member for Winchester referred to the classic example of Princess Diana in the minefield in Angola. That image whizzed around the world instantaneously. Such activities change the context of political debate for legislators, Governments and everyone else, and the questions of authority and of what is the truth become important.
The hon. Member for South-West Devon referred to genetically modified food. A substantial research establishment in my constituency—the John Innes centre—is the world leader in research into GM foods, which is very exciting, although the Government must deal with wide public concern about the matter. Organisations state what they believe to be the truth. Greenpeace consciously uses the media and the instantaneous image to influence world debate on its international campaigning activities, whether those involve whaling, Brent Spar or something else.
The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent referred to the Child Poverty Action Group and to other organisations which make their cases in different ways. On whose behalf and with what authority they speak is not simply a matter for those organisations or the Government; it is for the media to decide what weight they give to allegedly factual remarks made in such discussions. I am not saying that the media should censor people, but there should be a conscious effort to think with what authority people speak.
When I was a Minister at the Department for Education and Employment, I took part in a television programme on safe routes to school—a campaign that I strongly favour and which is part of the Government's policy. A motorist representative was put on the programme against me. He came from an entirely self-invented organisation. He had literally done what the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent said and produced a letterhead. The motorist representative was allegedly speaking on behalf of motorists. I cannot remember his name, but he had invented the name of an organisation so that he could be summoned by the media as an authoritative commentator on such matters. Nobody objects to the AA, the RAC or other reputable organisations becoming involved in such issues.
The hon. Members for Faversham and Mid-Kent and for Winchester were right to deal with those points. Nevertheless, we should not let the media off scot free. They should operate a discriminatory approach in deciding who should and who should not be listened to.
I strongly support the point made by the hon. Member for South-West Devon on collaborative approaches. Had the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent not made the point, I would have cited the example of children's charities that have worked closely to influence the debate on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, in relation to paedophile links and how we deal with paedophile crime. Those charities are working closely with us on the development of the Criminal Records Bureau and associated issues. As the hon. Member for South-West Devon said, those organisations are also collaborating closely together.
The Member for South-West Devon also described international collaborations, which must be the way forward. Indeed, such an approach is at the core of the Government's actions.
§ Ms Drown
My hon. Friend will know that I have raised before my concern about the potential charges to NGOs for using the Criminal Records Bureau. Can he give me an update on the consultation process? I should like to know about the bureaucracy that will be associated with such a proposal, and hope that the possible disincentives for organisations to come forward are removed.
§ Mr. Clarke
The short answer is no. I welcome my hon. Friend asking such a question. We are good friends. She secured the first Adjournment debate after the 1997 election on an issue about which we are both concerned. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) that it is a touching tale, but I shall go into it.
§ Mr. Clarke
Funnily enough, I did know that. I have received a large amount of correspondence about the matter from Members on both sides of the House, members of the all-party group and others. We are considering carefully the various representations that have been made. The reason why I rather rudely said no to my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon is that I do not want to get into such a debate here.
Accountability and partnership must be at the core of our actions. The fact is that charities and voluntary and community organisations must account for their use of substantial sums of Government money. Central Government are obviously accountable to departmental accounting officers, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, and to Parliament and the electorate. Voluntary organisations are accountable to their users and funders, including the Government. Registered charities are accountable to the trustees, the terms of their trust deeds and the Charity Commission, which is responsible for promoting the effective use of charitable organisations. Such a relationship is difficult, which is why the compact to which my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) referred is so important.
I was slightly worried by the tone of some of the speech of the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent, because it would be dangerous if the Government or the state were to follow policies that seriously encroached on the independence of voluntary community organisations. That independence must be exercised with discretion, but the principle remains that it should be protected and substantiated through existing relationships. The hon. Member for South-West Devon gave good reasons for protecting that independence. One might have concerns about the way in which some organisations operate, but in seeking to rectify that, we must not override the key issue of their independence. That principle lies at the heart of the compact on relations with the voluntary and community sector, which is a memorandum of understanding by which voluntary organisations and the Government voluntarily agree to abide. It sets out key principles and undertakings that underpin the relationship and emphasises the co-dependency of Government and the sector.
259WH Independence is critical. Especially important is the right to campaign and to comment on Government policy and challenge it, irrespective of any funding relationship that might exist. Although resources are substantial, it would be dangerous if we were to rule that an organisation could have access to those resources only if it signed some self-denying ordinance not to attack Government. There may be frustrations and raggedy bits at the edge of such an agreement, but the principle is important and the Government adhere to it strongly.
The compact is supplemented by codes of general practice, including ones on funding. I return to the point made by the hon. Member for South-West Devon. When the Government fund an organisation, they always advise it to plan a funding strategy for when that funding ceases, for the reasons mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. The code seeks to develop such points.
The code also applies to central Government Departments, to next steps executive agencies and to a range of organisations in the voluntary and community sector. It is designed to reflect best practice in Government. The better regulation task force report on voluntary sector funding emphasised the need for a Government funding framework. The code provides a framework that meets the five principles of good regulation, transparency, accountability, targeting, consistency and proportionality in seeking to ensure value for money, protect public money, promote fair access to strategic projects and contract funding and provide clarity in the objectives of grant programmes and eligibility criteria.
I will ask my ministerial colleague to examine the point made by the hon. Member for South-West Devon about religious discrimination and fair access to funding. The points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby were well made, however. The code provides transparency and objectivity, ensures clarity and greater consistency, and establishes a joint approach to monitoring, which is at the core of a great deal of what we do.
For its part, the voluntary and community sector acknowledges that being in receipt of public funds brings with it responsibilities to the funding body and to service recipients. The sector undertakes to pursue good practice in the use and administration of public funds, including the establishment of effective and proportionate systems for management; compliance with the appropriate framework of law; systems for planning and implementing work programmes; systems for monitoring and evaluating activities against agreed objectives; systems for quality assurance and accountability, and public acknowledgement of Government support.
We have an appropriate legislative framework for charities that is specifically intended not to overburden them. That framework includes a series of requirements, which I will not address in detail except to respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent. He referred to the issue of including people drawn from the group that the charity serves—an important point for any "do-gooder" organisation. The 260WH Charity Commission has provided guidance on new ways of finding trustees that includes guidance on that point.
There are questions as to how far individual organisations respect the guidance set out by the commission. A series of approaches have been made in developing that point. In recent years, the commission has achieved increasing compliance from charities on basic matters such as submission of accounts and reports; 92 per cent of charities with an income of more than £100,000 in the year 1999–2000 have submitted their accounts to the commission. The commission actively pursues larger charities that do not comply. At present only a handful have failed to submit any accounts in the past three years, and the commission intends to name and shame any that remain in default in an announcement this month. We believe that the public have a right to that information, for the reasons that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent described.
All those issues are serious and need to be properly developed. Charities must be accountable for the resources that they hold. Established development charities have shown that it can be done, and various cases have shown that effective action will be taken to protect charitable funds when it is not.
I turn now to the international development aspects that were mentioned, which are an important aspect of the debate. The hon. Member for South-West Devon rightly mentioned the partnership programme agreements of the Department for International Development. Those agreements take the approach that I described in the domestic environment into the international arena, which is obviously more complicated for a variety of reasons. Through those partnership programme agreements, DFID hopes to strengthen and deepen its strategic relationship with key development actors in British civil society, with the aim of collectively making more impact on the international development targets.
By March 2001, DF1D aims to have concluded PPAs with 11 long-term partners, including Save the Children, Action Aid, Oxfam and Voluntary Service Overseas. Those PPAs will be worth £150 million over the next five years, and the plan is to extend those agreements to other major civil society players in the United Kingdom in the coming year. That is intended as a response to the points that have been made about the need for a longterm rather than emergency-based approach to development work and building the necessary partnerships.
I shall not talk more generally about DFID's commitment to building a civil society and its encouragement of voluntary and community organisations, although they are important, for exactly the reason that the hon. Member for South-West Devon gave when he discussed his experience in Nairobi. However, I shall respond to the points that he made.
I am advised that funded organisations must produce work programmes and structured budgets and that funding is released against delivery of the programme to budget. I understand that, as the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent suggested, money for development programmes is paid in arrears. I shall ask my ministerial colleagues at DFID to consider the points that have been made in the debate as we move forward.
261WH Bank guarantees are slightly more complicated. They are not required for emergency funding, which involves only bank details. For development programming, DFID does not insist on guarantees, but in cases in which we have agreed that the NGO involved will provide matching funds, we want assurances that matching funds are available for the first-year programme and will be forthcoming for subsequent years. That assurance forms part of the agreement between DFID and the organisation involved for development projects. However, as the hon. Member for South-West Devon was nice enough to concede, such projects are not my area of responsibility and expertise, so I shall ask my colleagues at DFID to write to him and copy the correspondence to other Members who participated in the debate.
The final point that the hon. Member for South-West Devon made related to big, multinational, multilateral organisations such as the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and the UN. As hon. Members know, the British Government have under both parties operated a major programme to reform the UN's institutions and operation. We have tried, for reasons that seem to us to constitute good government, to persuade our international colleagues in the UN that we need a much more effective framework in which to operate. As the hon. Member for South-West Devon knows, the circumstances have been difficult, but both this and the previous Government were active in trying to take those circumstances forward constructively.
When I was a member of the Select Committee on the Treasury, I was keen for Select Committees to hear evidence on such matters from the IMF and World Bank, which are Treasury institutions, in order to ascertain whether we could tease out some of the issues that have been raised today. I emphasise that this is not an official Government position, but I feel that the Select Committees of the House, including the Select Committee on International Development, of which the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent is a distinguished member, could consider some of those issues in an interesting way that might take the debate forward in a general spirit of trying properly to inform the debates of the House.
I conclude this positive debate—I wanted to speak about the Sphere project, but I do not have time to do so now—by emphasising the Government's commitment, which this debate has demonstrated is shared throughout the House, to the overall approach to strengthening the voluntary and community sector at all levels of our society.