Children England responded to the government's consultation on a Civil Society Strategy on behalf of our members in the children and families voluntary and community sector. Whilst we invited fresh perspectives from members to inform it, and participated in several sector-wide discussions about prevailing conditions in the voluntary sector, we found that the most pressing areas for change are the same - only perhaps more acute - as we've understood them to be since our 2012 report Perfect Storms. We therefore drew on several years' worth of understanding of the operating environment for charities.

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Our Civil Society

Civil society comprises the independent, spontaneous actions of individuals and organisations to help each other, motivated by compassion and public spirit rather than personal gain or organisational profit. An individual is not solely an employee, service user, volunteer or supporter: they are likely to contribute to – and benefit from – civil society in all of these roles over their lifetime, and we believe it is through the unique mechanism of voluntary action, embodied in the voluntary and community sector (VCS), that they can participate in the most autonomous and effective way.

The need for people to act – whether as a volunteer, donor, advocate or campaigner – to improve each other’s lives and the sustainability of their communities is as great as it’s ever been. The VCS, in response, continues to rise and adapt to the challenge of society’s changing needs, synthesising a multitude of financial, material and human resources that no other sector can bring together.  The VCS working with children and families has a long history of, and continues in, leading the way in child-centred services that work across sector boundaries. To give just one of many examples from our membership, Place2Be’s counselling in primary schools has been independently evaluated as an example of early mental health intervention that, saving £6.20 for every £1 spent, demonstrates the social and economic value of investment in school-based support.

Civil society thrives when people feel that they have a right to speak out or step up on issues they care about – and receive respect and support to do so. This applies to individuals on the cusp of participation and to people already involved in a community group or charity, who draw on that right to voluntary action every day.

That is why the inherent independence, potential and capacity of the voluntary and community sector must be respected by government in all its strategies, and the space for charities in civil society protected. That means, amongst other things, public engagement with charities that respects their specialist knowledge; service commissioning that does not undermine charities’ sustainability, or curtail their ability to represent their beneficiaries; and government policies that do not co-opt charities or volunteers as agents of statutory or private agendas.

The impact of smaller charities can also be maximised by investing in local, regional and national infrastructure bodies, the closure of many of which is leaving sectors and areas of the voluntary sector without crucial support. The value of infrastructure support, including practice-sharing, advocacy and brokering collaboration and partnership with the statutory and private sectors, can be difficult to measure, but the increasing absence of it is being keenly felt across the VCS. Our members report that the closure or merging of local Councils for Voluntary Services leaves them without the expert local advice and intelligence sharing they previously relied on, and obliges them to either use up more resources forging connections and travelling to events over a wider area or to do without these supportive networks.

At a national level, the termination of Department for Education strategic funding of the Safe Network programme in 2015, developed and delivered by Children England and NSPCC, has left thousands of organisations working with society’s most vulnerable people without essential safeguarding training and resources. The huge reach of Safe Network – reaching 1 million people with our web resources in its last two years, training thousands of organisations including paid staff and volunteers, engaging three quarters of Local Safeguarding Children Boards and producing a comprehensive online library of safeguarding guidance – was only possible because of strategic funding through national infrastructure. Training was accessible because it was free and responsive at an extremely local level, and expertise was thorough and up to date because experienced staff were recruited and well-resourced. The cost of Safe Network to the public purse was just 50p per person reached - an investment in the safety and protection of children that was worthwhile government spending by any metric.

Infrastructure bodies in any sector are vital channels for government to ensure resources, expertise and ideas can flow both from national agencies to the smallest local communities and from those communities out to the decision-makers who seek to understand them and nurture a cohesive society. Government funding streams that aim to build particular capacity – for example digital, governance and financial management – as well as funding to address societal issues of inequality and division – can often be most fairly and responsively disbursed through national and regional sector bodies that understand where, and on what terms, investment is most needed.

We hope the Civil Society Strategy will recognise the impact investment in infrastructure can have not only on society’s ability to keep children safe, but on its ability to recognise emerging challenges, develop sustainable solutions and empower local communities to help themselves.

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