At a recent forum of civil society and business, Matthew Hancock, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, told charities “I want to see civil society recover its confidence to speak into our public life, you have the right to campaign, to persuade the public, and to press for change in the systems which affect the life of this country.”
These were welcome words, but reality has a way to go in order to catch up. New research published by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK), The Chilling Reality, has found that the Lobbying Act is just one of a raft of government policies affecting charity and voluntary sector campaigning. The bigger picture is more complex and even more worrying. Government policies, funding restrictions, media attitudes and public opinion have all worked together to increase hostility to the idea that organisations should speak out on social issues.
We believe the ‘chilling effect’ of the Lobbying Act is a rational response to ambiguous legislation. The result is more cautious, less responsive campaigning. Those who lose out are the people directly affected by the issues. It is their voices, ultimately, that are being silenced.
Many organisations work hard to involve people with lived experience in political debates, both locally and nationally. Smaller charities and churches reported being more nervous about supporting political engagement. Even larger charities, who should be better able to cope with such risk, reported stepping back from important issues that they feared were too sensitive.
Those ‘sensitive’ political issues included social care, benefits changes and the rights of disabled people. These are all areas in which government policies have significant impact on people’s security and wellbeing, so it’s deeply troubling that they should be regarded as ‘no go’ areas for political debate.
Are we losing sight of what politics is for and who gets to take part? It is not a rarefied arena, in which only members of a political party may act. Nor should there be some issues that it’s acceptable to shout about (like microbeads, litter, or ivory) and others that should be considered off-limits (like immigration, poverty or racism).
The famous feminist slogan, ‘the personal is the political’ described the way our personal experience of the world must be allowed to inform political analysis and debate. They were talking about recognising the deep-rooted and systemic nature of sexism. The Charity Commission says that “campaigning and political activity can be legitimate and valuable activities for charities to undertake”. Is it time for charities to revisit whether amplifying the voices and experiences of the people they work with into the political debate is vital to their mission? If so, it’s time to take it on with a renewed confidence.
The Government must also recognise the implications of this report’s findings. It must do its part to protect our civil space. If Matthew Hancock was serious about his comments, he will have to match actions to words by showing us he is willing to protect and re-open the space in which charities can contribute to our national political debate.
 Matt Hancock speaking on civil society in the 21st century, 16 May 2018 – https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/matt-hancock-speaking-on-civil-society-in-the-21st-century
 Campaigning & political activity guidance for charities CC9, Charity Commission (2008) – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/speaking-out-guidance-on-campaigning-and-political-activity-by-charities-cc9/speaking-out-guidance-on-campaigning-and-political-activity-by-charities