What distinguishes an 'arms length' non-departmental public body - funded mostly by the taxpayer - from a Government created charity funded almost entirely by the taxpayer?
There are, of course, any number of constitutional and financial differences between a public body and a charity. Only a registered charity is entitled to claim gift-aid back on donations for instance. NDPBs are potentially subject to the scrutiny of Parliament, while charities are left to the Charity Commission. Well, that's almost true; some NDPBs happen to also be charities - i.e. the School Food Trust - so Parliament has the right, strictly speaking, to scrutinise some charities too.
But accounting and governance subtleties aside, it's often very hard to tell the difference between a Government charity and a Government body. Does that matter when the object is something few disagree with? Perhaps not, but nomenclature does matter when an organisation avoids the proper public scrutiny and admonishment it deserves because of its 'independent' charity credentials.
V - or the Russell Commission Implementation Body to use its more sexy name - is just such a organisation. Much like many public bodies, V is the result of a Government inquiry. The Russell Commission was looking into the state of youth volunteering, and V embodies one of its key recommendations.
On the surface of it, the decision to set V up as a charity (in May 2006) makes some sense; people are naturally more hostile to 'Government body' than they are to 'independent charity', and when you're trying to get people to give money it follows that you don't want to put people off from the start. So it is likely to have been a calculated decision to constitute V as a charity rather than an NDPB. Calculated to fool.
If that means more people get involved in youth volunteering though, does this slight of hand really matter? Surely those who worry about such things should just get a grip?
Well, no. V is almost entirely funded by the taxpayer - 96% of its 2007-08 income came directly from the Cabinet Office, totalling £46.7 million (for full details, see here). So if you care about how the Government spends your money, then you care about how V spends it.
In May V chose to spend a little of your money on some polling. Aiming to dispel the 'negative stereotypes' of today's youth as 'violent, disrespectful or apathetic', 1,000 16-25 year olds from around the country were asked (online) a series of questions about their behaviour and attitudes.
Terry Ryall, CEO of V (or as the polling press release calls it, The National Young Volunteers Service) believes the results confirm how wrong "adults" are about Britain's young people. She was on the air waves earlier this week, promising to use the results in V's various campaigns (for more public money one might assume), and in her conversations with Government.
One could take issue with many parts of this story, but let's start quite simply with the poll itself.
While the good people of V are no doubt right that 'youth' often gets unfairly misrepresented by the press and politicians, most intelligent people know that the negative stereotypes are just that; negative stereotypes. Outside of some rough estates no one really believes all young people are carrying knives and a criminal intent. And for those few people who have reason to believe that all young people are the negative stereotype, neither this poll (which they probably won't hear about) nor any amount of campaigning will convince them other wise. The 'youth' they encounter is the negative stereotype.
Still, surely there's some good to be had from getting a 'youth' perspective? Perhaps, but if the results of this poll are that snapshot, then "adults" (as Ms Ryall glibly generalised in her interviews) are right to be worried. Let's remember that the sample (1000 16-25 year olds from around the country, half boys and half girls) are not likely to be the apathetic, disrespectful youth that V is interested in. These are young people who - by the simple fact of their involvement in the poll - are likely to be at least a little more plugged in than the average. Not, by and large, the 'anti-the-system' hoody.
What of the actual poll results? V has spun them as proof that Britain's 'youth' are misrepresented, but if anything the results confirm people's worst fears:
(1) "85% of young people said that they or their friends don't carry knives". But 11% of respondents admitted to either carrying a knife, or knowing someone who did. Quite apart from the fact that Home Office and Police statistics put that number higher in certain problem areas, of V's small sample at least 100 people confirmed the general public's fears. (The actual poll question was "Have you or any of your friends carried a knife for protection or with the intention of harming someone?)
(2) "86% of respondents had never shoplifted goods worth more than a fiver". Which is great, but 14% freely admitted to having lifted items worth more than a fiver. Much more importantly, is the logic of this question that it's ok to steal small, relatively inexpensive items? Corner shops don't have "only two children at a time" signs up in their windows because kids steal stock from out the back; they steal Mars bars and a Red Bull off the shelves. Such petty theft is a massive problem, and it is this low level crime that fosters the negative stereotypes of youth. (The actual poll question was "Have you ever shoplifted goods worth more than a fiver?")
(3) "61% believed it was irresponsible to be a teenage mum". 36% of respondents thought otherwise. Not that those 36% are necessarily wrong - there are plenty of very responsible teenage mothers - but it does suggest, however crudely, that there is a significant minority that doesn't consider being in school to be that important. Which again confirms many peoples stereotype of youth. (The actual poll question asked was "Is it irresponsible to be a teenage mum?")
(To see the full polling results, click here).
Nine other questions were asked, most with similarly mixed results. What's really interesting from the other questions though is what V decided to ignore when writing their press release: 19% admitted to having had an eating disorder; 22% replied that they were not happy with their relationship with their family; 23% would have plastic surgery if money wasn't an issue; 48% consider it fine to 'binge drink'.
All in all it's a quite a depressing picture, not the myth busting expose which V has sold it as. But V is an odd fish, and so such behaviour perhaps isn't surprising. As a charity entirely dependent on taxpayers money, it has to constantly prove to its paymasters (the Office of the Third Sector in the Cabinet Office) that it is active, busy, worth the investment. This need to impress explains the press releases which claim that V is responsible for creating hundreds of thousands of volunteering places, when really all it has done is channel taxpayers' money to volunteering groups. V's a sort of middle man then, arguably a vital one, but not in itself the volunteering catalyst it makes claim to.
Importantly, all of this has nothing to do with volunteering itself. Getting more young people into volunteering is unquestionably a good thing and V arguably goes about this task in the best way possible. Some would have you believe that questioning V's legitimacy is tantamount to questioning volunteering. It is not. The issue with V is with that
taxpayers don't know tha
t they are funding this organisation. It's a public body in all but name, but most people listening or watching Ms Ryall (V's CEO) believe they are hearing the boss of an independent charity. They don't know that they are paying her salary, and paying for the poll which she then uses to tell them that they're wrong and unkind about today's youth.
Moreover, few people mind if groups and charities work to influence the Government's agenda, or the public's views - that's what you get living in a pluralist country - but when that influencing work is being funded by the taxpayer, people are right to question its legitimacy.
And at the same time, they are right to question whether it is it really legitimate to call an organisation a charity when it gets over 90% of its income from the state? Ends do not justify the means, and whether one agrees with state sponsored volunteering (which is something of a contridication in terms) or not, how the state goes about doing that supporting matters.