With three recent reports saying that campaigning is a central function of charities, itâs time for clarity on the attitude of government, says our columnist
Three major reports about the voluntary sector have appeared in recent weeks: one from theÂ House of Lords Select Committee on Charities; another from theÂ Lloyds Bank Foundation; and the third from the sector think tankÂ Civil Exchange. All look at the challenges facing charities and all are emphatic on one point: the absolute centrality of campaigning for charities and other voluntary sector organisations.
The Lords Select Committee on Charities says in its report: âCharities are the eyes, ears and conscience of any society; advocacy is a central part of their work and a sign of a healthy democracy.â
The Lloyds Bank Foundation says inÂ Facing Forward: How Small and Medium-sized Charities Can Adapt to SurviveÂ that âcentral government shouldâ¦ actively seek the voice of smaller charities and their connections to local communities to inform policy and practice, particularly as Brexit unfoldsâ.
Civil Exchangeâs reportÂ A Shared Society?Â calls on Theresa May, the Prime Minister, to âmake a clear statement about the legitimate role of campaigning and the importance of the voice of the sector in helping to shape policies and servicesâ.
When three separate reports from three very different and highly credible sources all issue such a clarion call for campaigning to be recognised as a legitimate and valued part of what charities do, youâd think the game was up. Surely now is the time for the government to make its position clear. Indeed, it is the lack of clarity that has been most damaging to the sector rather than any substantive change in the freedom to campaign.
The lobbying act was never supposed to curb charity campaigning, and the government should accept Lord Hodgsonâs sensible recommendations to reduce its scope.
It would be helpful if the government could reaffirm its commitment to the Charity CommissionâsÂ CC9Â guidance on campaigning and political activity and put to rest rumours that this will be reviewed. It should also restate its commitment to the Compact, the agreement that sets out the relationship between public bodies and voluntary organisations, which was reviewed in 2010.
Despite the rowing back from the anti-advocacy agreement being inserted in all contracts, gagging clauses continue to be attached to some grants. The tampon tax managed by the Treasury has them, and it would seem that the Department for International Development is also attaching restrictions. The inconsistent approach at a national level is very difficult to manage. At a local level, it seems commissioners are interpreting the general mood in even more extreme terms. Small charities talk about being labelled âdifficultâ, even if they just ask questions about policy approaches.
Expending so much energy on nitpicking over the nature of the relationship between charities and the public purse is aÂ waste of energy. Given the scale of the challenges we face as a nation, we should be focusing on how the state and the voluntary sector can work together in pursuit of common goals. It should be a partnership underpinned by honest dialogue and, when necessary, an ability to challenge.
With so many now calling for it, will the government now offer the clarification and reassurance the sector so badly needs?