Turning recommendations into reality: One year on from the Law Family Commission on Civil Society

Matt Whittaker


When we launched the Law Family Commission on Civil Society in December 2020, we set ourselves an ambitious but critical target: to unleash the potential of the UK’s social sector to support a better Britain in the decade ahead. Over the following two years, our commissioners, technical panel members and the PBE in-house team worked alongside hundreds of practitioners up and down the country to apply perspectives and expertise from across the social, public and private sectors to this important question. 

Launching the final report in January 2023, we presented 26 practical recommendations spread across five key areas – better data, partnership with government, working in parallel with business, improved resourcing, and enhanced infrastructure – that were designed to build a country in which: 

“…more people receive better, faster, more targeted support from civil society when they need it, wherever they live… in which the voices of people who find it most difficult to be heard are louder in the rooms where decisions are made… in which a greater proportion of society’s problems are stopped before they start… and in which all three sectors pull together to solve the totemic issues faced by all”.  

The recommendations were good. Many were welcomed by the very stakeholders that needed to implement them, and one or two had already been acted upon. But against a backdrop of continued pandemic fallout and growing cost of living pressures, perhaps the most important pledge we made at the Commission’s conclusion was that this wasn’t the end. Instead, PBE promised to work with partners and to find new champions to continue to progress the priorities that had been the product of so much hard work and deep thinking. So, one year on, how have we been doing? 

Start with the big picture need to stop undervaluing and overlooking civil society in the national conversation and it’s hard to overstate the importance of the Labour and Civil Society Summit that PBE hosted at the start of 2024. Over half a day, 17 shadow ministers – including Sir Keir Starmer, Yvette Cooper, Wes Streeting and Bridget Phillipson – met with 150 civil society leaders to discuss the different ways in which the social sector might work alongside a future Labour government. Crucially, Sir Keir’s keynote speech directly reflected the Commission’s findings by calling for a “reset” of the relationship between civil society and government and setting out a pledge to work in genuine partnership.  

Securing a promise to centre civil society at the heart of policymaking creates a significant opportunity. It’s one that we hope other parties will echo, and it’s something that we’ll continue to help shape in the months ahead. But we’ve made good progress on more technocratic reforms too.  

Working alongside partners in the philanthropy space for example, we have helped the government to explore opportunities for boosting giving in the UK. As part of this, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has declared herself to be the government’s ‘philanthropy champion’, stating that enabling, encouraging and recognising philanthropy is a “core priority”. Efforts elsewhere in government are bearing considerable fruit too, with the Office for Investment launching a philanthropic envoy service that has already supported a £35 million philanthropic investment in the UK Biobank and a £1 billion philanthropic investment in a technology institute. 

And we have made solid progress in our efforts to deliver on the Commission recommendation to make philanthropy a standard part of the conversation between wealth advisers and their clients. There is strong support for action across government departments and the Financial Conduct Authority is taking practical steps in this direction.  

Forward steps on bringing more resource into the sector then, and advances too in relation to matching capacity to the distribution of need. The Commission called on the government to undertake a “root and branch” review of local civil society infrastructure that would highlight best practice, identify cold spots and provide the grounding for a future renewal of the pipework supporting the social sector. This was embraced by NAVCA – the membership body for local infrastructure organisations – and prompted the establishment of a working group in early 2023. And it was later embraced by the government too, with DCMS commissioning precisely the review we called for towards the end of 2023. We are pleased to be taking that project forwards, in partnership with Ipsos Mori and Sheffield Hallam University, and are hopeful that it will inform lasting change. 

Partnership working has been an important part of our approach to taking forward our work on sector data too. The Law Family Commission was able to celebrate a policy win in this area as early as February 2022, with the Levelling Up White Paper’s pledge to introduce a civil society ‘satellite account’ dedicated to collecting data on the sector. Once again we saw this as being a beginning rather than an end, and we’ve been pleased to have worked subsequently with national accounts specialist Josh Martin to advise government on bottoming out the practical implementation of this approach. 

We’ve likewise taken practical steps to progress the Commission’s idea for a ‘civil society evidence organisation’ (CSEVO) that can collate, generate and disseminate thinking on social sector productivity and effectiveness. A task and finish group is currently exploring the potential added value that a CSEVO might provide and will look later this year to develop an appropriate business plan for its eventual creation.   

And we’ve been very encouraged by the appetite that civil service leaders have displayed for picking up on the Commission’s recommendations for better connecting civil society to Whitehall. We’ve already explored a range of opportunities around volunteering, trusteeships and collaboration at a more strategic level, and we’ll be announcing an exciting new development in this area very shortly. 

A busy and very productive year of action then. One that offers hope for the coming period, while underlining just how much there still is to do. Just as it was 12 months ago, our pledge now is that we’ll continue to push. All of the activity listed above remains work in progress, and we’re continuing to develop new opportunities that build on the Commission’s recommendations – not least on the relationship that exists between business and civil society. And just as it was 12 months ago, our ask of you is that you continue to work with us to pick up existing and as-yet unexplored threads that can unleash more of civil society’s immense potential for good.