By Shareen Patel, policy and influencing officer at ACEVO.
Rishi Sunak (or “Rushi/Rashid/Rashee Sanook” according to Joe Biden, but let’s save that for another day) was selected by his own party as prime minister on 24 October 2022. He became the UK’s first British Asian prime minister on Diwali and at age 42, is the youngest British prime minister in modern political history. He also steps into 10 Downing Street with a combined net worth with his wife of around £730m, making them wealthier than King Charles and the Queen Consort.
Some say Sunak is the right person at the right time for the job. His background in finance – working in investment banking, hedge fund management and co-founding an investment firm, plus his experience at the Treasury as chief secretary and then chancellor can come in handy to help navigate the economic crisis we find ourselves in. It also seems the markets have confidence in him given they reacted positively to the initial prospect of him becoming prime minister. Furthermore, he correctly predicted the shock to the markets and heightened interest rates following Truss’s economic plans. So, what might his premiership mean for our sector?
His choice of words for his first two speeches as prime minister could be deemed as encouraging, however, it is the actions that come alongside the words that matter most and so far his choice of Cabinet appointments has left many wondering if his claims to integrity, professionalism and compassion stand up to scrutiny. Sunak referenced the need for “stability and unity” and pledged to serve with “integrity and humility”, adding in “professionalism” and “accountability”. He promised to fix mistakes made and said he will place economic stability and confidence at the heart of this government’s agenda, which will mean difficult decisions to come. What these “difficult decisions” are is yet to be seen but one can assume it means tax increases and public service cuts. We will find out more at the Autumn Statement on 17 November 2022, which will be accompanied by an Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecast.
Sunak referenced among his priorities the NHS, education, the environment and levelling up. It is particularly encouraging to hear levelling up is back on the agenda as mention of this slogan has become quite infrequent over the past months. Many are quietly pleased at Michael Gove’s return to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to see this agenda through. However, in his failed Conservative party election campaign just a few months ago, Sunak previously bragged about “undoing” measures to prioritise funding for more deprived areas in favour of more affluent communities in the south and this is something that the sector could view as a potential concern. The re-appointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, after resigning just a week ago over a breach of the ministerial code and as someone who has said on record that her dream is to see asylum seekers on a flight to Rwanda, has been called into question by many and was the focus of Sunak’s first PMQs. Dominic Raab’s appointment as Justice Secretary leaves many to fear that the previously discarded Bill of Rights will make a comeback, with the concerns that raises for human rights law and our protections.
There is some confidence to be had however that Sunak is aware of and understanding of the impact of the charity and voluntary sector. As a former local government minister he knows the importance of local government and its partners in supporting people and communities and how support flows through those channels, stating that he would be a ‘champion’ for councils in representing their needs to Treasury. In his first speech as prime minister Sunak reminded us that as chancellor he introduced measures to support businesses and people including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme which undoubtedly saved jobs and livelihoods, and he was also convinced of the need to provide specific support for charities operating on the front line to tackle the impacts of the pandemic.
Despite the possibility of public service cuts implied by the “difficult decisions” this government will have to take, if Sunak’s desire to be a “champion” of local government continues to this day, we can hopefully expect him to acknowledge the importance of funding going to both local government and charities. The demand for local services and the services that charities provide is ever-increasing due to the cost-of-living crisis, thus without this funding there is a possibility that livelihoods and especially those of vulnerable people will be impacted. The sector has made clear that charities are important partners in the design and delivery of public services, and it is a necessity that sufficient funding is made available to deliver services that are effective and of good quality.
The sector as a whole wants to see no further cuts on international development spend given that the climate emergency, the cost-of-living crisis, and the impacts of the pandemic are increasing humanitarian and development needs globally. It’s been said that building up domestic and international communities, through sufficient funding, are interlinked goals and this is where Britain’s reputation as a leader in international development comes into play. With more aid cuts, this reputation is put at risk and domestic charities will be hindered in running their international programmes. When Sunak was chancellor, he made the decision to cut the government’s aid budget by £4.5bn – from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income (GNI). Whilst he did say that the UK’s aid budget is “scheduled” to return to 0.7% in 2024-25, I think this is more of a ‘let’s wait and see what happens’ type of situation but whatever he does, it will influence the sector and the programmes that aid charities run.
It is evident that our new prime minister has previously recognised the importance of our sector, however, with certain ministers back in their old positions, it will be interesting to see whether they pick up their agendas where they left them off, or if the significant economic challenges we face will lead to changes in strategy. In any case, Sunak has a real opportunity here to showcase his leadership skills and bring the country back to stability. We can all hope that him and his government’s actions meet with the words of “integrity”, “accountability” and “professionalism”.