Can you tell us about the Third Sector Platform [Spanish: Plataforma del Tercer Sector]? Are there differences between what is called “the third sector” and “civil society” in Spain?
The third sector in Spain is tremendously heterogeneous and diverse. It has been taking shape for years around platforms that undoubtedly improve the representation of various disadvantaged social groups. One of the last steps in this process was the creation of the Third Sector Platform. It started five years ago and has brought together the most representative third sector organizations and social action platforms of the third sector in Spain. The Platform has the aim of advocating for the most vulnerable people in our society, ensuring dialogue with the public authorities, encouraging the sector’s regulation and promoting public policies that favor inclusion and participation. In this sense, we at Third Section Platform consider ourselves a part of civil society, to a large extent we are representatives and clear agents of civil dialogue, but we obviously do not represent all of civil society.
The support of society’s most vulnerable members depends to an extent on every Spanish citizen, more specifically upon 0,7% of their personal income tax (IRPF). Can you give us some details on that?
The personal income tax is levied on the income earned in a calendar year by a person residing in Spain whose income exceeds 22,000 euros. When this tax is to be declared, each citizen can choose to allocate 0.7% of the total tax for social purposes: for vulnerable people in the situation or at risk of poverty or exclusion.
What are the recent developments in regards to this practice?
In January 2017, the Constitutional Court [of Spain] issued a ruling on the management of these funds, according to which Spain’s territorial configuration and transfer of powers make it the responsibility of the Autonomous Regions to take care of all activities concerning social welfare. This forces the government to adopt an urgent solution and to stop managing the funds from the General State Administration.
What was the cause for such a change?
Some of the Autonomous Regions, particularly the Government of Catalonia, have being using this management model for more than two decades. To them, there was a conflict of competencies, meaning that it was up to them to execute and manage centrally funded social programs. Organizations of the third sector have been always defending a model of general state management, considering it the only way to reach the people who really need help , thus also guaranteeing a balance of territorial solidarity. That is, to care for people in need no matter where they live.
What was the solution?
The Government decided to create a dual model including both the central government and the regions. In this way, the funds collected annually would be divided into two parts, 80% would go to the Autonomous Regions and 20% would be managed by the state to carry out projects of a supra-territorial nature.
What are the consequences of this model’s introduction?
It will lead to a radical change in the third sector of Spanish social action. Personal income tax generates some 300 million euros of revenue a year, which are distributed to organizations to carry out projects directly with people in need. In many cases, this is the bulk of the funding for many organizations to develop their activities.
What are the main fears of third sector organizations?
The problem we see is that from now on funds will not be distributed in any purpose-determined way. There is no guarantee that they will be used directly to support people. Second, projects are no longer carried out by the organizations of the third sector of social action. These organizations have been doing this for 30 years with a great deal of professionalism, and society has recognized their achievements.
How has the sector reacted to the proposed changes? Were there any negotiations?
The Third Sector Platform has been leading a negotiation process with the government since January 2017. It has played a fundamental role both in maintaining internal cohesion between third sector organizations and in liaising with the Ministry when trying to defend the sector’s interests. After 30 years of working in a viable model, there is no doubt that the change has not been well-received. First, On the one hand, it raises the question of whether these subsidies will continue to reach the people who need it. On the other hand, there are also new unknown issues, especially among state organizations affected by drastic cuts in funding, and also concerning the nature of projects carried out from now on. The process of negotiation has not yet come to a close, but we believe that dialogue is fundamental to defending the interests of the most disadvantaged people in society.
Are there any positive experiences of the third sector’s influence on the legislative process in Spain?
One of the objectives of the Third Sector Platform is to promote a normative development strengthening the third sector in Spain. In this sense, one of the most relevant milestones achieved in the sector was the passing of the Law of the Third Sector of Social Action [Spanish: Ley del Tercer Sector de Acción Social] in October 2015. It is the first regulatory framework approved in Spain defining the third sector, and stating who is a part of it and what its objectives are.
How can the current situation be addressed in the European context?
The peculiarity of Spain in terms of its territorial distribution and distribution of powers between the Autonomous Regions makes it difficult to draw comparisons at a European level. Maybe one could say that here as well as in Europe, it is a question of promoting processes that help to achieve participatory democracy and to strengthen it through new structures and new mechanisms of interaction with citizens and civil society as a whole.
Have you consulted with colleagues from other countries?
We have led a dialogue with other European colleagues on aspects that link the third sector and its sustainability. Due to the peculiarities of the system of 0.7% in Spain, it is practically impossible for us to find similarities with international cases.
What are your plans for the next steps?
The Third Sector Platform has to develop a political agenda. Financial sustainability is, without a doubt, one of the challenges we must address, but there are many others as well. It is fundamental, as a sector, to continue working on improving the dialogue with public authorities, strengthening the regulatory framework that defends the interests of the sector, improving cooperation and collaboration between organizations in the sector, improving efficiency and quality of internal processes and, finally, innovating. Society is rapidly changing and the third sector must evolve as well, reflecting that change.[:]