The campaigning role of charities has stayed firmly in the public spotlight for the last twelve months and appears to be gaining traction as we head towards the General Election. It first raised eyebrows last year when the sector expressed significant concerns about the then coined ‘Gagging Bill’ – now Lobbying Act. Calls came from the Public Administration Select Committee for charities to declare their campaigning spend on their Annual Return (a recent Charity Commission consultation), various noises have been made about whether charities in receipt of public funds should campaign at all and most recently, there have been complaints made by a number of Conservative MPs questioning the party political independence of charity campaigns.
The sector ignores such developments and public scrutiny at its peril. This line of attack has again highlighted important questions around how charities communicate the vital role they play in bringing about social change, through both their frontline work and campaigning. The debate also raises questions on how the sector can ensure that their campaigns are clearly non-party political.
Should charities campaign?
It has been suggested that charities should “stick to the knitting”. That engaging in debate over the causes and solutions of social challenge is not the legitimate arena for charities to operate in. Indeed recently Conor Burns MP complained to the Charity Commission that Oxfam’s most recent campaign about poverty in the UK was politically bias and Charlie Elphicke MP tabled a Westminster Hall debate on issue of the political independence of charities.
Charities exist to make the world a better place. They achieve this through their delivery of services and often by speaking truth to power; in other words campaigning. Charities have a long history of driving change. For example, at the turn of the last century, it was charities who led the campaign for the abolition of slavery.
This changing narrative around the role of charities and their relationship with the state is cause for concern. Charities fear that such attacks on their campaigning role promotes the idea that charities are only frontline service delivery organisations – that they should shut up and serve.
Charities are the ones who engage with the most vulnerable and marginalised in society. Would they not be failing in the public benefit duty to bring their ‘intelligence’ to policy debates on how to bring about social change? Desmond Tutu once said “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” If the role of charities was understood in these terms rather than stifling these voices, MPs would be looking for ways to listen to them.
Politics doesn’t mean political
Charities must be politically independent. But much of what we do is inextricably linked with policy and politics. The two are not mutually exclusive, far from it. The Independence Panel, supported by the Baring Foundation has found that the independence of the voluntary sector is essential for a healthy society. Its recent report has argued that a time of low political engagement in this country, charities present a key avenue for representation of the public’s view.
If a mission driven charity campaign informs a party policy – this should be seen as success by the charity in achieving its mission, not political bias
Transparency; does it mean more disclosure?
The Charity Commission is currently consulting on the form and content of the annual return. Following on from the PASC recommendations, the Commission has sought views on whether charities should be required to publish their expenditure on campaigning, along with their income from public sector sources.
PASC in making its recommendations noted Charity Commission figures of very few cases of inappropriate campaigning activity by charities. They felt that during their post-legislative scrutiny of the Charities Act 2006, they had heard conflicting evidence on whether charities campaigning activity should be reined in or relaxed with neither argument ultimately winning out. No recommendations were made to change the rules on political campaigning.
At our roundtable today at CFG to discuss the consultation, many members raised concerns in particular around the motivation behind the drive for disclosure of the quantity of spend on lobbying and campaigning activities in the Annual Return. Many were concerned about the practicality of compliance, if such a requirement featured; what would be counted in the figure to be quoted? If a charity carries out international advocacy or public health campaigns- would this be included too? What is the Charity Commission’s motive in asking for information that is not a SORP requirement? And all were concerned that any information sought should be balanced against the burden placed on charities to provide it. Many fear that this is part of a stealth attack on the role of the charity sector to speak up independently.
The importance of our independent action to act address crucial structural issues in our society lies at the heart of our democracy. If our actions are undermined by those who rule placing burdensome requests on us and conflate our successful campaigns with a lack of political independence, we may find ourselves in a very different looking society.
Here at CFG-HQ we are busy preparing a response to the consultation. It would be great to hear from as many members as possible so do not hesitate to get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like have your say on such an important issue.