Political environment "increasingly hostile" to campaigning, warn charity leaders

A group of leading charity sector organisations are calling for a "reset" in the relationship between civil society and politicians in response to what they claim are increasing threats to their campaigning after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Their report says that in the first stages of the health crisis government and charities worked well together to identify areas of greatest need and to help develop the furlough scheme, which they say “has saved millions of people from unemployment and destitution”.

However, they warn that since then “the political and operating environment for campaigners has become increasingly hostile”.

They are concerned around emerging constraints to charity campaigning through plans by ministers to e restrict people’s ability to take government and public bodies to court through judicial reviews. Plans to curb this area of campaigning were outlined in an Independent Review of Administrative Law report earlier this year.

Meanwhile, charity leaders are concerned by restrictions on the right to protest, as laid out in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The fears have been raised in the Campaigning During coronavirus: lessons from civil society report which has been produced by international aid network Bond, ACEVO, NCVO, Unlock Democracy, Quakers in Britain and the Sheila McKechnie Foundation.

“As we enter the second year of the pandemic and begin thinking about life in the new normal, it is clear we need to build better ways of doing things which will deliver a more hopeful future,” states their report.

“To this end, we urge the government to create a new framework that better protects the right to campaign.”

This resetting of the relationship between charities, government needs to be based on the principle that campaigning “is a crucial part of promoting and protecting open societies, democracy, transparency and human rights”.

In addition, campaigning needs to be seen as a “legitimate and necessary activity” to challenge injustice and foster debate.

“As we tentatively emerge from lockdown, we have an opportunity to do just that. We need the government to recognise the value of campaigning in making politics better, institutions more effective and society stronger,” the report concludes.

It details recent surveys and reports in the sector that show that more than half (54%) of campaigners believe the pandemic has increased the priority of campaigning for their organisation. Almost two thirds (63%) of campaigners believe politicians have become more negative to campaigning, while 54% believe the public are becoming more positive about campaigning.

“From protecting millions of jobs in the UK to advocating for fairer access to vaccines globally, campaigners have ensured a more compassionate, inclusive and effective pandemic response, said Rowan Popplewell, Bond civic space policy manager and report co-author.

“The pandemic revealed the power and benefit of campaigning. The political environment, as well as restrictive legal and regulations, continues to create barriers for campaigners seeking to deliver change for the people and issues they care about.

“As we enter the second year of the pandemic, we need to reset the relationship between campaigners and decision-makers and take steps to better protect the right to campaign.”

Top charity campaigns amid the pandemic

Despite raising concerns about restrictions on campaigning, the Campaigning During coronavirus report also showcases case studies of successful promotion and lobbying by charities amid the pandemic.

This includes campaigning by Women’s Aid to gain funding for domestic abuse support services.

The charity pointed out how lockdown measures had given abusers a new tool to control their abuse by restricting survivors access to support. While at first women’s aid groups were “largely invisible” in the government’s Covid-19 response, this changed following successful campaigning by Women’s Aid. This included mobilising local groups and producing “robust research” into the impact of Covid-19 on women, says the report.

As a result, Women’s Aid helped secure approximately £30 million in emergency funding for domestic abuse and violence against women and girls groups in April 2020 and a further £12 million available in top-up funding in November 2020.

Another showcased in the report, is campaigning by Shelter to ban evictions of people living in private accommodation who were unable to pay their rent amid the pandemic.

“Shelter mobilised supporters on Twitter who maintained the pressure, and the campaign snowballed with the use of creative social media content and a Covid-19 emergency petition,” explains the report.

“At the same time, Shelter worked behind the scenes with civil servants in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. As a trusted partner in the housing sector and provider of legal advice to tenants, Shelter were able to present decision makers with a clear picture of what was happening in communities across the country and share solutions to the problem.”

By the end of March 2020 ministers pledged to ban evictions and temporarily increased the notice period landlords were required to give from two to three months.

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