Month: July 2014

“Loosening the shackles?” Policy towards voluntary action in the first Thatcher administration

John Mohan, University of Birmingham
We are interested in how people’s attitudes to voluntary action have evolved over some 35 years from 1981, when Mass Observation was established in its modern form, through to the present day. As context for that discussion, we are also analysing key changes in policy towards the voluntary sector and volunteering since the 1979 election. There are significant elements of continuity but also elements of discontinuity in policy during that time period. Here, we look back at some key policy statements and public speeches from the early years of Mrs Thatcher’s government.

Ministerial statements

In 1979, as in 2010, the government came into office having promised policies which would involve substantial reductions in public expenditure. In seeking a new direction, they sought to revive voluntary action, asserting that state intervention had crowded out private initiative. An early speech at the Conservative Political Centre in July 1979 by Mrs Thatcher, on the “renewal” of Britain, shows this very well.[1] She charged the “collectivist ethos” with breaking down “the sense of responsibility to family, neighbourhood and community”. This emphasis was consistent with the Thatcherite stress on the need not just to reverse economic decline, but to recover and re-invigorate other positive traits of Britishness. It therefore contributed to what Maria Brenton subsequently described as a “crescendo of political rhetoric” in favour of voluntary action.[2]

Voluntarism was seen as an expression of initiative by individuals, not large-scale action by voluntary organisations. Thatcher’s speech to the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS) in 1981 argued that the only way to reach all those who need help was “through the voluntary service of millions of individuals”. She described the “volunteer movement” (italics added) – note, not a movement of voluntary organisations – as being at the heart of social welfare provision. A corollary is that there is no sense, in her speeches, of the voluntary sector as a sector, and other commentators have observed that the notion of a “voluntary sector” was “invented by committee” in the late 1970s – in other words, by researchers and policy analysts.[3] Commentators have also argued that the radical Right prioritised informal social action by individuals because it classed large-scale voluntary organisations together with the collective social action represented by the social services.[4] In that regard, the Thatcher and Major governments did not seek to bring “the sector” on board. This is in very sharp contrast to the Labour governments (1997 – 2010), which established and funded various mechanisms for consultation, involvement in policy formation, support for the sector’s infrastructure, and building the capacity of voluntary organisations. Since 2010, such support has been scaled back substantially, if not removed altogether. Organisations have no guaranteed place in discussion of policy, and the opportunity has regularly been taken by Conservative MPs to criticise charitable organisations on the grounds of their allegedly politicised campaigning activities, and because of the high salaries of their senior staff.

What’s also notable in Thatcher’s speeches (and those of Ministers such as Patrick Jenkin, Thatcher’s first Secretary of State for Social Services) is the emphasis on a “refinement of focus down to the primary supports of family and locality”,[5] not entirely unlike the localist emphasis of the Big Society. For Jenkin the “first and most natural source of care is the family, friends, neighbours and communities taking action to help the vulnerable”. This went hand-in-hand with a vision of the state acting as a secondary catalyst where voluntary effort was lacking.

Mrs Thatcher’s enthusiasm support for voluntary action did not, however, translate into a systematic policy initiative. Some prominent individuals and organisations met with her to discuss specific proposals. Famously, and of course controversially in light of subsequent events, one was Jimmy Savile, who lobbied Thatcher vigorously for tax relief on charitable gifts, and persuaded the government to contribute £500,000 towards his £10 million fundraising appeal for Stoke Mandeville Hospital.[6] Thatcher also met Alec Dickson, the founder of Community Service Volunteers, to consider the potential role of voluntary organisations in combating youth unemployment.[7] Presented with a proposal not unlike the subsequent Citizens Service advanced by the Coalition, Thatcher rejected anything that would involve compulsion.

Policy discussions

We might have expected to find reference to voluntary action in two other key sources. These were the review of long-term options for public expenditure conducted by the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS), and the Family Policy Group.

The CPRS was charged with thinking the unthinkable, but even the radical options for the welfare state considered in a famous CPRS paper in 1982 show no evidence of discussion of the potential contribution of the voluntary sector.[8] In contrast with later Labour emphases, for instance, there isn’t a strategic sense that high levels of voluntary involvement could contribute to the improvement of public sector productivity. In the Cabinet papers prepared by the CPRS, there is no reference to voluntary action by individuals and the only discussion of shifting the balance between the individual and the state was in relation to health insurance.

The Family Policy Group, led by Ferdinand Mount, has more of a focus on the potential for voluntary organisations and for alternatives to state provision. With its focus on “renewing the values of society”, this group was concerned that the decline of the family had led to social breakdown, so they sought to identify ways of supporting traditional families.[9] By November 1982, one of its emerging themes was “meeting social needs through voluntary action”. This included consideration of tax reliefs on charitable giving, and encouraging the involvement of the private sector in the well-being of local communities. Some specific proposals discussed included the possibility of something like the “free schools” model, and greater support for a precursor of the “sure start” model of early years service provision (a recommendation for “multipurpose family centres”). The latter was consistent with emerging evidence on child development, but in the funding climate of the time, the insistence on local fundraising after some statutory pump-priming seemed to betray a naïve faith in the distribution of charitable resources.

These discussions also talked of “loosening some shackles” – Geoffrey Howe, Chancellor of the Exchequer, suggested that the government should ensure that communities “which value and are prepared to support local schools and hospitals have the ability and the right to do so” (emphasis in original). A practical expression of this had been the removal of prohibitions on fundraising by health authorities which had been in place since 1948. But there wasn’t a concerted move to transfer public services to charities or the voluntary sector. There were occasional local initiatives, such as transfers of community hospitals to voluntary ownership, or the establishment of elements of health service provision as freestanding charitable trusts. However, with the exception of the transfer to charitable control of the Tadworth Court Hospital (a branch of the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital) in 1983, few of these took place in the early years of the Thatcher administration. Compared to the Coalition presumption in favour of alternative modes of delivery, expressed through the “right to challenge” public sector providers of services, these were small-scale. And the Thatcher government at no point introduced a marketisation of public services on the scale of the current NHS reforms.

Evidence-based policy?

What evidence was available concerning the likely impact of increased voluntary initiative? Neither the CPRS, nor the FPG, made use of the substantial body of evidence assembled by the Wolfenden Committee.[10] Nor did Ministers. Patrick Jenkin vigorously affirmed his belief that his proposed reductions of 7% in the budgets of local authorities could be absorbed by voluntary effort, because, he said, “there is a substantial possibility, indeed a probability, of support from the community”. Pressed by the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts to justify that statement, Jenkin was unable to identify any research evidence to back it up. Volunteering rates never became a political talisman in the way they did post-2010, however, nor were specific policies implemented to increase volunteering or charitable giving.

There were some discussions about the possible contribution that volunteering might make to alleviating the impact of unemployment, and some specific programmes were developed (e.g. Opportunities for Volunteering, which had a strong health emphasis, though its projects did not require large funding, and were often linked to an established infrastructure such as Hospital Leagues of Friends).

Given Thatcher’s emphasis on reversal of Britain’s decline and the need to revive a tradition of voluntary action, the absence of many positive policy steps is surprising. We could argue that the lack of an evidence base – what works, in terms of getting individuals involved – played a part, though Jenkin, for one, seemed to disregard it. We could also argue that the government’s attention in its early years was absorbed by the need to reverse economic decline, tackle inflation, defeat the “enemy within” in key industries such as coal mining, and the Falklands war. The austere public funding climate militated against substantial initiative.

On the other hand, the relatively small-scale and ad hoc initiatives that took place might be read as the government playing a long game. Controversy about whether the NHS was safe in Thatcher’s hands didn’t prevent the gradual development of programmes to support voluntary action and fundraising, and it didn’t stop health authorities transferring some activities out of direct NHS control.[11] Over the years, these initiatives made the expansion of voluntary initiative look like a natural, and non-controversial, process. The “loosening shackles” described in the Family Policy Group and the absence of a blueprint or top-down plan are therefore surely not so far removed from the subsequent “big society” philosophy of David Cameron. In contrast to the post-2010 period, however, advocates of voluntarism did not face the wholesale commercialisation of the environment in which they were to operate.


[1] M. Thatcher, ‘The renewal of Britain’, speech to the Conservative Political Centre, 6th July 1979; available at

[2] Brenton, M. (1985) The voluntary sector in British social services (Longman)

[3] 6, Perri & Leat, D. (1997), ‘ Inventing the voluntary sector by committee: from Wolfenden to Deakin ‘, Non-Profit studies, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 33-46.

[4] Brenton, M (1985); Lawrence, R (1983) “Voluntary action: a stalking horse for the Right?” Critical Social Policy, 2 (3), 14-30

[5] Brenton, 1985, 143

[6] TNA PREM 19 / 878, “Communications with Jimmy Savile concerning tax deductions for charitable donations following his fund raising for Stoke Mandeville hospital”.

[7] TNA PREM 19 / 369, “Prime Minister’s meeting with representatives of the Community Service Volunteers to discuss youth unemployment

[8] Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS), ‘Long-term public expenditure options’, TNA CAB 184/556, CAB 184/628.

[9] TNA CAB 184 / 563, Family Policy Group.

[10] Wolfenden Committee (1978) The future of voluntary organisations (London: Croom Helm)

[11] Mohan, J (1995) A national health service? (Macmillan), chapter 8.