One of David Cameron's big ideas, perhaps the biggest in his "sociocentric paradigm", is to rely on the voluntary sector to deliver more of the services currently provided by government. It seems, though, that this is less a big idea, and more an enhancement of the extensive use that this Government already makes of charities.
We learn today, from coverage of a National Audit Office report in the FT, that 12 of the largest charities receive £700m a year of taxpayers' money between them from "several thousand different funding streams", and that they invest considerable resources (£381,000 each per year on average) "simply managing these multiple sources of money". All charities combined "received £10.7bn of public money in 2004-5".
It is hard to know whether to be more critical of the unbelievable bureaucracy that can produce thousands of funding streams, the waste and distraction that must stem from managing this, or the broader issue that what makes charities what they are is precisely that they are not beholden to government and serving the government's purpose, and that making them clients of the state threatens to gradually turn them into little more than extensions of the Greater Bureaucracy.
Certainly we shouldn't underestimate the bureaucratic impediment and distraction. The FT reports that "charities complain that the public sector is a difficult customer, often demanding masses of information and paperwork when tendering, not paying the full cost of services or staff provided and requiring burdensome compliance procedures. Contracts can be too short and include inappropriate terms and conditions."
But on balance, it's the latter that matters the most. In coopting their services, Labour and the Conservatives are in danger of corrupting them, and killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.
[The title of this entry is a reference to a quote from P.J. O'Rourke, which you can find here]
A quick update on a story I ranted about earlier this week. Apparently none of us are philanthropists – or at least none of us are falling for this new version of the stealth tax. In reports in the Daily Telegraph, there have been no immediate offers to pledge money to Universities from senior executives. Grant Hearn, chief executive of Travelodge said, "There is a growing engagement within the business community to get involved in philanthropy. But in my view contributing time is a much better way than giving money.”
I missed the story two weeks ago on Cheryl Gillan's proposal to voucherise charity funding. If I'd been in the country (I was skiing), I'd have laid into it at the time, but for such an idiotic proposal, late is better than never.
The comments on Tim Montgomerie's reporting of the suggestion on ConservativeHome were generally supportive. It shows how drippingly wet the modern Tories are getting. I propose a new term, of which this is a classic example: Camoronism. A Camoronism is an idea that looks superficially cuddly and attractive at first sight, but which on closer inspection turns out to be ugly and dumb - in fact downright moronic.
The idea is that the Tories want to encourage charities to do more of the work currently carried out by government, but don't want to fund it directly because government is not good at deciding how to allocate funds. So far, so good. As so often, the diagnosis is sound, but the prescription is more dangerous than the disease. Cheryl's prescription is to provide vouchers to volunteers, entitling the organisation for which they volunteer to a share of state funding.
Charities need both labour and money. They do not necessarily need them proportionately. Nor is it the case that those who cannot commit labour (for instance, if they are working hard to support a family) have neither the desire to give nor the judgment to choose which charity to support. Why would those who volunteer for charities have a better idea of how to spend my money than I would?
How is volunteering to be measured? Will an hour a year count? Or will the value of the vouchers be proportionate to the time contributed? Will all volunteers have to keep timesheets to "prove" their contribution? How will their claims be audited? Who in the process would have an incentive not to exaggerate?