This is no time for charities to cower

John TizardParliament has passed the lobbying bill or, as many in the voluntary and community and trade union sector refer to it, ‘the gagging bill’, having mounted a long campaign to have it either significantly amended, withdrawn or defeated.

After some skirmishes and a few defeats in the House of Lords, government brought the whips to bear and used its majority to drive this act onto the statute book. It simply brushed aside the opposition, even from the charity sector.

To my horror, the Charity Commission, whose chair is regarded as being close to the Conservative Party, reportedly briefed parliamentarians against the arguments of the very charities that it regulates but clearly does not feel it has to speak up for.

Further, charities and trade unions failed to project a common and united voice on this, as on too many other topics, where there is and should be a shared objective. This was a tragic missed opportunity.

And now I hear some commentators and politicians arguing that certain charities are taking public money to apply it to campaigning against the government.  And, at the same time, many voluntary and community organisations feel intimidated or unable to challenge policies from those public sector bodies from which they receive either grant or contract funding.  Service provision and campaigning are complementary and the sector should say so and prove why. Something is wrong!

The government (and indeed all the major political parties) repeatedly declare their support for the voluntary and community sector, as do local authorities and other public bodies. Yet many organisations across the sector increasingly feel besieged and under threat of losing funding or opportunities to play a critical role supporting their beneficiaries and their communities.  Something is indeed wrong!

Public spending cuts and wider government policies mean that the public sector,  at both national and local level, is unable or unwilling to meet the needs of communities and vulnerable members of those communities. And yet, there is an ‘expectation’ that the voluntary and community, and wider charity sector will be able to simply ‘step in’ and take over the running of public services without adequate (if any) additional public money.  This too is wrong!

If a strong and vibrant civil society is going to grow and complement the public sector in service delivery and building economic and social capacity, and in offering policy advice and an informed voice for its beneficiaries, then there has to be a new approach.

Some local authorities (of all political persuasions) have recognised the value and importance of sustaining a good relationship with the local voluntary and community sector; continuing funding for the sector and its local representative and development organisations; opening up service delivery opportunities on terms that are realistic for the sector; involving the sector in strategic decision making and commissioning; and being willing and mature enough to do all of this while the sector and those in it challenge and campaign against aspects of local authority policy.  There is both a need and a role for such mature democratic behaviour across local government, central government and the wider public sector.  Politicians and officials should respect the independence and contribution that the voluntary and community sector can make to public policy development.

However, for their part, the voluntary and community, and wider charity sectors have got to find the leadership and confidence to push back against those politicians and public officials that do not show such respect or have no wish to have a mature relationship. Rather, they must argue for the repeal of the lobbying bill, find their voice on ‘welfare reform’ and growing poverty and inequality, and advocate alternative social, environmental and economic policies. They have to be ready to form alliances with others around shared agendas – for example the trade unions, faith groups and, in some circumstances, the business community.

This has to happen at both a national and local level, and to this end, national sector organisations absolutely must provide leadership, advice and support to local organisations.

The charity sector was able to force the government to reverse its decision to end tax relief for high earners for tax donations.  It showed a strong united voice on this, even though the underlying policy position was far from one of equality and fairness that the sector should be promoting. It’s time for the sector to muster the same vigour and resolution in Whitehall and Westminster and across the country, to speak out for the right to speak out and to serve its beneficiaries; and more importantly, for social justice and opportunity for these beneficiaries and communities.

This is the time to be fearless and bold; not the time to cower or retreat from mission and purpose.




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Mike Riddell
Mike Riddell
10 years ago

Having the courage to do things differently is the trick to good leadership when times are tough. I welcome the call.

10 years ago

The National Coalition for Independent Action agrees with you. This week we have issued a press release calling for direct action to defy the gagging law:

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