COMMENT: Time for the sector to speak up

Are you using your voice? This is one question raised by Civil Exchange’s latest annual health check of the relationship of the state and the voluntary sector – A Shared Society? The independence of the voluntary sector in 2017 – which points to evidence of growing self-censorship. According to a Sheila McKechnie Foundation survey, 1 in 5 charity professionals say that their organisation now does less campaigning. One reason given is that campaigning is being seen as either too risky, or something they should not be involved in. During the EU referendum campaign, negative Charity Commission guidance was certainly another factor.

That’s ironic because as a result of the EU referendum it is now increasingly recognised that the voices of marginalised and disempowered groups must be heard. The Prime Minister has committed to a ‘Shared Society’ to tackle what she calls the ‘burning injustices’ and make a ‘Britain work for everyone’, acknowledging the important role of charities in this endeavour. Sir Stuart Etherington has called for the sector to raise its voice on behalf of these groups to shape the post-Brexit world.

There’s a major opportunity here for a shared agenda - but only with a fundamental shift in the relationship of government and the voluntary sector, learning lessons from the failed Big Society and ensuring the independence of the sector is upheld.

Some of this must fall to government. Real barriers stand in the way of a new positive relationship that could – and should- be removed by Theresa May. The Lobbying Act should be reformed, as Lord Hodgson has already recommended. Statutory funding should reach far more effectively those parts of the voluntary sector that are already seeking to tackle social injustices and have vital expertise to help government shape new policies and services. Contracts and grant agreements should allow those and other voluntary organisations the freedom of action and independent voice to provide the right support. The Compact – which contains many excellent promises that have fallen into misuse - should be refreshed, complied with and backed up with a well-resourced, independent body to police it.

And the Government must be clearer about what is acceptable ‘political lobbying’ when voluntary organisations receive government funds. An opportunity was presented by the new grant standards issued at the end of 2016. Thanks to the efforts of key leaders in the sector, what emerged was considerably better than the ‘no advocacy clause’ that was originally mooted. But deep and damaging ambiguity remains. Indeed, despite positive statements from some in the sector to the contrary, the Cabinet Office said that the new standards put an end to ‘the waste of money’ on ‘political lobbying’- and still guards against it in the detailed standards in no uncertain terms. Paid for lobbying by in house staff will normally be excluded, for example, when paid for staff may be exactly what is required. A consortium of charity organisations rightly pointed out that this was not Compact compliant. But many in the sector now believe the job is done. Grant administrators, however, will read the standards. Indeed the latest round of the Tampon Tax Fund issued at the same as the standards includes exclusions for campaigning, advocacy and awareness raising.

Challenging government decisions in court can be one way to stand up for groups who are not being otherwise heard, and it can be very effective. In 2016, ClientEarth was successful in a second judicial review against the Government’s plans on clean air. The Government will now have to put forward new plans to address a problem that is killing 40,000 people prematurely each year. A few months later, the Government introduced regulations to increase cost risks for NGOs taking these types of cases, reducing the likelihood of further challenge. These changes are being challenged and they should be reversed.

What the report demonstrates is that significant threats to independence remain, and some are still growing, despite some welcome victories and advances in some areas over the last 12 months.

That independence must continue to be defended and in that respect – as many of the guest contributors to the report elaborate and the report explores – there is much that the sector itself can do. Amongst these actions, it is clear that the voluntary organisations must use their voice more confidently, finding legitimacy through their connection with those marginalied and disenfranchised communities and individuals who most need their help, and strengthening those ties where necessary in order to renew their sense of independent purpose and speak up on their behalf.

We need more voices, not less, in society and the sector must make sure that they are heard.

Caroline Slocock is director of Civil Exchange and author of the report

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