Is the sector losing its voice?

Charity sector independence is hanging in the balance, according to a hard-hitting report published last month by the think tank Civil Exchange.

Independence in Question pulls no punches in its condemnation of recent Government policy, which it says is attacking charities’ ability to provide an independent voice for its beneficiaries on issues ranging from housing policy to women’s causes.

Meanwhile, the report says little is being done to address corporate lobbying. This stance is “increasing the power imbalance in society” especially between the private and charity sectors, says the report.

The Cabinet Office’s decision this year to insert a ‘no advocacy’ clause in public sector grant agreements, to stop government funding of charities’ political campaigning, is among a raft of recent ministerial decisions criticised in the report.

Lobbying act

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act also comes under fire.

This law stipulates that any charity, spending more than £20,000 in England, or £10,000 or more in other parts of the UK, on activities that can “reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voters to vote for or against political parties” has to register with the Electoral Commission as non-party campaigners and submit details of campaign spending and activity.

The legislation, commonly known as the lobbying act, has been widely derided across the voluntary sector with Acevo among others calling for it to be repealed.

Chief complaints are that it places an unfair administrative burden on charities and is unnecessary, as political campaigning is already regulated by the Charity Commission.

A review of this controversial legislation was completed by Lord Hodgson in March. Although his report stopped short of recommending it be repealed he did put forward around 30 changes.

These include reducing the regulated period before a general election to four months rather than a year and clarifying its definition of “procuring electoral success” to only cover campaigning that is clearly intended to influence voters’ choices.

Hodgson believes his review has struck “the right balance” to ensure the law “will better reflect the realities of third party campaigning”.

But charity sector reaction has been mixed. NCVO chief executive Sir Stuart Etherington says Hodgson’s recommendations offer a “sensible package of reforms” that bring “much needed clarity”.

Acevo chief executive Sir Stephen Bubb is a little more cautious saying the recommendations are “a good first step” to ensuring “charities are not unduly silenced”.

Meanwhile, Jay Kennedy, director of policy and research at the Directory of Social Change, is concerned the recommendations offer a confusing mix that on one hand narrows the focus of the law for charities and on the other widens it again.

Clarification on ensuring the law only covers campaigning that is clearly intended to influence voters is welcome for “making the net smaller,” says Kennedy.

But Hodgson “appears to be widening the net again” when recommending changes to the law’s definitions of “the public” and “committed supporters” in terms of campaign costs that are covered by the law, Kennedy adds.

Currently campaigns aimed at committed supporters are excluded, but Hodgson says this is “no longer tenable” largely due to social media blurring the lines between a charity’s supporters and the public.

Kennedy says: “So for example if you have a charity newsletter that only goes to members that will not count as a cost. Hodgson is saying that doesn’t wash anymore and anything you put out there is basically public.”

Charities could face an even bigger administrative burden, warns Kennedy, as Hodgson is calling for a requirement on charities to submit information regarding planned activities around electoral campaigns and having to state on all “relevant material and their internet and social media homepages” that they are registered with the Electoral Commission as a third party.

Simon Francis, co-chair of the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA)’s charity and not for profit group, which represents charity lobbyists and communicators, also has concerns around Hodgson’s recommendations.

He says that only “70 per cent” of the PRCA’s wish list for change was met by Hodgson, with its call for the financial threshold to be raised a key recommendation that was rebuffed.

“It doesn’t want to make allowances for inflation. That may not be a short term problem but it will be a long term one,” he says.

Francis is also concerned over potential changes to definitions of ‘the public’ and ‘committed supporter’, which looks likely to mean “more charities may need to register as those staff costs and expenses involved in supporter communications would also count towards the financial limits”.

Will the recommendations be adopted? Kennedy is sceptical and believes ministers will not be keen to reignite the debate over the law. However, Kennedy concedes ministers would not want to be seen to “completely ignore” the report.

EU referendum

The EU referendum has emerged as another battleground in the war over charity independence.

Last month Friends of the Earth, The Wildlife Trusts and Greenpeace all made public comments backing EU membership.
Among those to support their involvement in the debate was EU membership group Stronger In. A spokesperson backed charities’ “duty to act and speak out in the interests of their beneficiaries”.

“People need to hear all sides of the story on Europe, and it is important that their voices aren’t stifled in this debate,” the spokesperson added.

But the Charity Commission appeared to be less keen, issuing guidance shortly afterwards saying that only in “exceptional” circumstances should a charity advocate a particular outcome in the EU referendum.

Following criticism from among others the NCVO, which accused the regulator of setting the wrong tone, this guidance was hastily revised. But even this updated version failed to satisfy many in the sector. Acevo director of public policy Asheem Singh says it “remains pedantic” and “risks shutting out important voices.”

Civil Exchange director Caroline Slocock notes how different the Charity Commission’s stance on the EU referendum was to its Scottish counterpart, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR), whose guidance was “much more permissive in its tone”.

She was particularly impressed with the OSCR’s encouragement of charities to join the debate, with OSCR chief executive David Robb saying that “charities have a recognised and important role in our society, and for many campaigning is a legitimate part of their work”.

Pat Venditti, Greenpeace UK programme director, is also critical of the Charity Commission’s guidance condemning it as a “suspiciously-timed shot across the bow” with the aim of deterring “civil society groups from talking about the EU referendum”.

Kennedy is particularly concerned that the Charity Commission may have strayed beyond its remit. “It shouldn’t be up to the Charity Commission to determine how often a charity will decide that it is in their interest to take a position on the referendum. It should be there to say what the rules are, that’s all.”

After five years of reporting on threats to charity independence Slocock laments how concerns, such as the lobbying act, Charity Commission guidance and gagging clauses, have built up over time.

“Step by step there have been more challenges to the independence of charities, which is in real danger unless the voluntary sector defends itself,” Slocock adds.

Joe Lepper is a freelance journalist

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