Govt urged to legislate to protect charities’ free speech

Politicians have been urged to protect charities’ independence and rights to free speech in law, and restore ministerial responsibility for the sector to a cabinet level post.

The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations publishes its manifesto today, calling for a five point ‘pledge card’ of policies to ensure charities cannot be silenced by legislation such as the Lobbying Act.

The pledges would see free speech of the third sector protected explicitly in law, with the exact approach dependent on the governing party’s policy. Charities’ access to judicial review would be protected, and the right to legal aid extended to charities where they represent an at risk or underrepresented group.

Government would commit to a single third sector Act under the pledges, unifying all of the regulation around charity campaigning. This includes appropriate provisions in the Charities Act, the Lobbying Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act.

Finally, under the pledges government would work with and support an ongoing assembly of third sector organisations whose mission is to maintain the independence of the sector’s voice. Government would also set up an ‘All Party Parliamentary Group for Third Sector Independence and Campaigning’.

The manifesto recommends using £470m from the record bank fines to support charities and community groups.

Acevo chief executive Sir Stephen Bubb said charities depend on a “free and independent” voice, but legislation like the Lobbying Act has a chilling effect.

“It’s time for politicians to recognise this pressure and stand up for our country’s civil society. Rather than promises of a big society tomorrow, we need a free society today,” Bubb said. “Acevo’s manifesto suggests policies to make it impossible for charities to be gagged in future. It is a blueprint for a free society and it’s time for the political parties to listen.”

Acevo’s manifesto also calls for restoration of Civil Society Minister to Minister of State level, mandating them to attend Cabinet.

The Office for Civil Society would receive extra powers, acting as a third sector advocate across government.

The manifesto also calls for a Charter for Citizen and Community Rights in public services to boost third sector delivery, and a Charity Debt Advisory Service to help charities expand their use of social investment.

Minister for Civil Society Rob Wilson said he looked forward to "scrutinising and debating" the policy package in the weeks to come.

“Over the next six months positive dialogue between charity leaders and politicians is vital. This detailed programme is a first step and merits consideration by the government and all political parties in the run up to 2015.”

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