When the Charity Commission announced last November that it would review political activity by charities in the run-up to the election, it sparked considerable concern as to what this might mean. Many wondered if it would lead to yet another review of CC9 – the Commission’s guidance on charity campaigning and political activity.
The Charity Commission tried to allay such fears by saying that this was ‘usual practice’. That might be so, but it is taking place in an unusually hostile environment for campaigning. For example, under the previous Coalition Government:
- ‘anti-sock puppet’ and similar gagging clauses in contracts made it harder for some charities to speak out;
- the number of policy consultations lasting less than 12 weeks more than doubled in 2012/13, from 40% to 81%, giving charities (and others) less opportunity to contribute;
- new financial restrictions on Judicial Review – a move explicitly designed to stop ‘the professional campaigners of Britain … taking over’ – will severely restrict charities right to seek a review on behalf of their beneficiaries;
- and, of course, the Lobbying Act, now being reviewed by Lord Hodgson.
At the same time charities such as Oxfam were heavily attacked for being ‘party political’ – or at least for ‘giving rise to speculation’ that their position could be misconstrued as such. The point is not whether such allegations are true or not – few people follow a story long enough to find out – but their effect on campaigning more widely. The negative publicity surrounding these attacks helps to deter dissent.
As individual organisations we should ensure that our campaigns reflect the highest standards, for example by being open and transparent; having clear objectives and a credible evidence-base. But we should not kid ourselves that this will ever be enough to satisfy those who don’t see the world the way we do, whatever their political persuasion.
As we await the outcome of the Charity Commission’s review, is it time to think what more we can do as a sector to protect the principle of campaigning, in all its forms?
We need to be clear that we don’t just have a right to campaign, we have a responsibility to do so: if we don’t speak up for our beneficiaries, who will?
But more than that, campaigning is the lifeblood of democracy, inspiring people to get involved in debates about social problems and solutions, ensuring that a wider range of voices are heard; speaking truth to power and holding it to account. At a time when public disaffection with politics and politicians is so high, this role is more vital than ever.
So we also need to be clear that there is a wider public benefit to charities’ campaigning, advocacy and political activity that goes beyond any particular campaign. Perhaps its time for a campaign in defence of campaigning?
This was first published as a guest blog by SMK at http://www.smk.org.uk/news/2015/6/19/smk-guest-blog-belinda-pratten.html