June/July 2013: Campaigning & independence

Charity campaigning and independence have been brought into question by some high profile examples, and, warns Joe Lepper, is still open for debate

According to a recent Independence Panel report the independence of the charity sector is in peril. The January 2013 report, Independence Under Threat, pulls no punches in describing how charities’ increasing involvement in public service delivery is putting pressure on them to curb their campaigning role.

Gagging orders, self censorship and implied threats of contracts being taken away for those that are critical of government policy, are now creeping into the relationship between charities and politicians, the panel warns.

This is causing increasingly “high levels of non-compliance” with The Compact; the agreement the government has made to uphold charities’ independence. Among the most concerning trends highlighted in the report is the appearance of so-called gagging clauses for sub contractors involved in the Department of Work and Pensions Work Programme.

Those taking part have to agree not to do anything to “damage the reputation” or “attract adverse publicity” for the DWP or the prime contractors involved. The panel labels this as “explicit contract restrictions on freedom of expression” and a direct contradiction of the national Compact.

Katherine Smithson, Charity Finance Group policy and public affairs officer, says some charities are turning down work because of such clauses. This is particularly the case for smaller charities, she says.

“The gagging orders put charities in between a rock and a hard place. They want to deliver the services but the gagging orders being put in place may not be appropriate and they may not have the resources to employ a legal team to look over them and check them,” says Smithson.

According to Caroline Slocock, the head of the Independence Panel secretariat, it is not only overt contract clauses that are impacting on charity independence. Charities’ freedom of expression is also being eroded by “a process of innuendo and implication,” she says.

“There is also a culture building up of self censorship out of fear of losing contracts. The implication is that for state funded work it would be inappropriate to criticise the government,” Slocock adds.

Sock puppets
One of the most high profile examples highlighted in the Independence Panel report of such an implication, is a Department for Communities and Local Government guidance document for councils published in December 2012 called 50 Ways to Save.

This urges councils to “cease funding sock puppets and fake charities,” which it defines as pressure groups that do not deliver services or help the vulnerable. The DCLG document goes on to reference an Institute of Economic Affairs report from 2012 entitled Sock Puppets, which calls into question any campaigning work by charities that deliver public services.

Slocock is highly critical of both the DCLG document and the credibility it gives the Sock Puppets report, which she says is“based on a misunderstanding of the notion of what charities do when they campaign.”

She adds: “What is being labelled as lobbying is in fact the charity speaking up for the people it is looking to help. What some see as criticism is in fact important work to improve policy.”

Alex Massey, senior policy officer at ACEVO, is also concerned that the Sock Puppets report is referenced by a government department. He says: “I can’t see the logic in the argument. If charities gave up being independent and being critical of the government because they are giving them money to provide a service then surely they would be the sock puppets.”

Among the charities to be criticised in the Sock Puppets report for having a dual role as a campaigning body and public service deliverer was Relate. Chris Sherwood, policy and external affairs director at Relate, says: “We bring an enormous insight to policy from our counselling experience. We are not critical for critical sake, we use our experience to guide us.”

Chris Snowden, research fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs and author of Sock Puppets, insists he is “not against the politicisation of charities” but is concerned that government money is being “wasted” on lobbying often against its own policies.

He says: “If charities want to lobby that is great and I don’t want to see any restrictions on that but they should do it with their own money.”

One solution he proposes is greater separation of charity revenue streams to ensure government funding is only used for public service delivery work and campaigning work is covered by other sources of funding.

But he concedes that practically that is difficult to separate the streams of revenue so that no public money is used for lobbying. “If you have a charity that is 50 per cent state funded and 50 per cent by donations it’s rather awkward. It’s difficult to say whether they are using taxpayers’ money for lobbying. Most will say they are not and there’s no way of proving otherwise,” he says.

He also wants to see government contracts having tougher terms preventing its funding being used for lobbying activity.

Charity curbs
Another criticism Massey has of the Sock Puppets report is that it assumes that in the provider and commissioner relationship it is only the charity that is benefitting. Massey says: “The idea that charities are all funding their lobbying through their public service delivery funding is looking at it the wrong way round. The reality is that charities are often funding their public service delivery work through their other funding streams.”

ACEVO is also against curbs on how charities should spend their money. “When a charity receives money to provide a service, providing it does this then I don’t see what further business the government has in micromanaging a charity’s own funds,” adds Massey.

The Independence Panel report, which is the second of four reports into charity independence, warns that charities are already curbing their campaigning zeal. Slocock says: “This is partly due to loss of core funding but it is also due to the fear of losing funding and a worrying expectation that to take government work you cannot criticise the government.”

The Independence Panel is calling on the Cabinet Office to take a stronger leadership role to protect The Compact and monitor compliance. Changes to commissioning arrangements so that they take into account the distinction between charities and private sector providers, is another Independence Panel recommendation.

Nevertheless the Panel welcomes the Public Services (Social Value Act) 2012, which promotes the distinct social value offered by charities in public service delivery.

Elizabeth Bayliss, chief executive of the charity Social Action for Health, says better commissioning, where commissioners work with providers such as charities to develop contracts, is crucial to improving charity’s independence and show the added value charities can bring to public service delivery.

She says : “Voluntary organisations have a role in representing their communities or members but the value of that role is not often accepted by councils who are so hung up on the purchaser and provider split that they can’t see beyond it.“

Bayliss suggests the best commissioning arrangements are partnerships. “You work out together what is needed in the local area and then you have a tendering process.
Councils recognise we bring money into the borough. We raise money nationally from a range of resources. We deserve a place at the table to decide on policy and commissioning.”

Social Action for Health has this relationship with the London Borough of Hackney, which it advises on public health issues. “But many small charities don’t know how to do that and are not brave enough to represent their bottom up interest of their members,” notes Bayliss.

Leadership visibility
Compact Voice, the charity that represents the voluntary sector on the Compact, shares the Independence Panel’s concerns that the ethos of charity independence is not being translated across government. Its 2012 Impact Report found that “leadership” of Compact issues were “not always visible in government departments.” The report was also concerned that the government’s Office for Civil Society has no full time members of staff dedicated to the Compact.

A reduction in government consultation time last year from three months to 30 days has also affected charities’ ability to assert their independence and campaign around government policy, says its report.

However, the report did welcome the move by Number 10 in February 2012 to ensure the Compact was one of six departmental business plan priorities and should be embedded into every government department’s annual business plan for 2012-13. Compact Voice said that it would continue to monitor progress and lobby to ensure the Compact is a priority in business plans for all departments for subsequent years.

Tom Elkins, Compact Voice manager, says: “It hasn’t always been clear from some departments how they are ensuring that the Compact has been embedded in their plans, so the vocal support they have offered hasn’t always been visible.”

Campaigners such as Compact Voice also face a challenge in persuading the wider Conservative Party of the value of charity independence. Last year Brian Binley, Conservative MP for Northampton South, criticised Save The Children for highlighting the plight of UK children living in poverty. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph he said he was concerned about the charity’s “political involvement.”

A spokeswoman for Save The Children says: “Save the Children is an independent charity and our mission is to speak out on behalf of children. We have done this from our founding days.”

Although a Cabinet Office spokesman declined to comment directly on the DCLG document and gagging clauses, he did say that Civil Society minister Nick Hurd is committed to defending charity independence.

The spokesman points to a Public Administration Committee hearing in parliament in December in which Hurd said: “I would be very reluctant to go down a path that sends any message to charities that somehow their campaigning role, their advocacy role and their independence from the state are being challenged or undermined in any way.”

But as the DCLG’s 50 Ways to Save document and Work Programme’s so-called gagging clauses show the independence of the charity sector is still far from secure.

Joe Lepper is a freelance journalist

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