BARCELONA — Miriam Davies was appointed the new United Kingdom minister for sport and civil society last week, as Prime Minister Theresa May declined to dedicate a ministerial post to the civil society space alone.
The appointment follows the resignation of Davies’ predecessor Tracey Crouch over the government’s delay in introducing restrictions on the use of betting machines.
Despite calls for the position to return to its former status as a single-focused minister for civil society, Davies will continue to oversee the joint office of civil society, gambling, sport, and the National Lottery.
Rhodri Davies, head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation — which helps donors and charities gain bigger impact — said that while the existence of a ministerial role with responsibility for civil society demonstrates the government’s commitment to the sector, it is disappointing the prime minister didn’t take the opportunity to reinstate a standalone minister.
“Having a supportive civil society minister who promotes a positive relationship between government and civil society is so important, especially in our aim to tackle the closing space for civil society internationally,” Davies said.
“There are ongoing questions about where a role of this cross-cutting nature best fits within government, and the extent to which this ministerial brief is combined with others.”
The correlation between sport, gambling, and U.K. policy on volunteers, charities, and social enterprises isn’t always clear. However, despite juggling several issues, the office released a new Civil Society Strategy earlier this year.
“Having a supportive civil society minister who promotes a positive relationship between government and civil society is so important, especially in our aim to tackle the closing space for civil society internationally.”— Rhodri Davies, head of policy, Charities Aid Foundation
The 123-page document details the direction of government policy toward civil society for the next 10 years and makes several commitments, such as including charities in the design of new policies and programs, contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals via increased business engagement, and recommitting to grant-making.
It was criticized by U.K. aid network Bond, among others, who said that while its emphasis on the value of a healthy civil society was welcome, the strategy lacked detail and clear action items.
“There was also very little mention of the Sustainable Development Goals in the strategy, which requires government, charities, and business work in partnership to ensure that no one is left behind,” said Claire Godfrey, head of policy and campaigns at Bond.
She added that with the U.K.’s Voluntary National Review just around the corner, the strategy’s lack of information on how government plans to work with all elements of civil society, not just businesses, to meet the goals was disappointing. “We would like to work with the new minister, and all relevant departments in Whitehall, to tackle some of these issues and not lose the momentum the Civil Society Strategy created at a government level,” Godfrey said.
CAF’s Davies claimed that the need to implement the new strategy is yet more reason for civil society in the U.K. to have its own ministerial leader.
“Given the challenges faced by the sector and the huge impact it has on people’s lives, it would undoubtedly benefit from a dedicated minister who can push forward the wide-ranging and ambitious plans set out,” he said, adding that identifying clear commitments to deliver on the aims should be a top priority for the new minister.
Both Godfrey and Davies cited the repealing of the 2014 Lobbying Act — which has restricted charities’ advocacy work around election time — as an additional potential priority. “We saw strong support for the advocacy role of charities in the [civil society] strategy, and we’d be keen to see this actioned through the repeal of the Lobbying Act, which has detrimental effects on the space for civil society both here in the U.K. and internationally,” said Davies. With one of the world’s liveliest civil society spaces, the U.K.’s treatment of the charity sector is often replicated by other countries, he suggested.
“We believe a thriving civil society is key to promoting sustainable international development and we hope the U.K. civil society minister continues ... to promote the important role the charity sector plays in the U.K.,” he said.
Bond’s Godfrey also called for more sustainable and flexible government funding for civil society “to support organizations both to deliver their missions and to function sustainably.”