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Charities Cannot Ignore Political Events and Should Be Ready to Pounce

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In advance of last week's Budget, many charities concerned with the rights and lives of people with disabilities had, for some time, been opposing the Government's plans to cut benefits to their beneficiaries. They acted both collectively and separately to seek to persuade the Chancellor and other ministers to think again; and to encourage other politicians, the media and citizens to join them in this endeavour.

This campaign united national charities and smaller local ones - those concerned with rights for people with disabilities, and those more focused on service delivery, and often with the support of groups across wider civil society.

On Budget day, it looked as if this campaign had been unsuccessful. However, as the impact of the proposed benefit cuts became increasingly better understood and when they were contrasted with the Government's proposals to reduce both capital gains tax and corporation tax, a political storm quickly began to brew. The consequences of this storm (with a high profile ministerial resignation and the Government agreeing to withdraw the precise proposal), can now be seen by us all.

Charities have rightly been arguing against specific benefit cuts on behalf of their members and their beneficiaries; drawing evidence from disabled people, carers and also from their own professional staff; and making the case for excluding some of the most vulnerable and poorest members of society from further cuts to their limited income.

In parallel, they have also been opposing cuts to key local government, housing, social and health care and transport services which are used by the very same citizens as those being penalised by the now suspended benefit cuts. And of course, charities have been in the forefront of both exposing the impact of and opposing the introduction and continuation of other previous benefit cuts and medical assessments for people with disabilities.

This action, in all its forms and with its many strands, is what contemporary charities should be about. It is not for them to indulge in partisan politics but it is their right, and I suggest, duty to speak up and to challenge policies and programmes that are harmful to their members and beneficiaries.

At one stage the Government said before implementing the latest proposed (or was it planned?) benefit cuts that it wanted further consultation with charities and other stakeholders, even though the formal consultation period had concluded sometime earlier. This offer to charities could have been very challenging, and indeed may still prove to be so.

As a general rule, it is vital for charities to maintain a dialogue with Government; to discuss options; and to advise on how policy might best be implemented to maximise the benefits and/or minimise the damage that policy proposals might make. Refusal to engage in dialogue simply renders the charity sector impotent and at best, turns the sector into an off-stage protestor. However, that said, there are times when it is better to be shouting from the side lines and opposing in principle that which is deemed to be beyond redemption by modest reform.

It follows that any charity and/or consortia of charities must consider very carefully when and when not to respond to Government overtures, particularly when opposed to the principles and nature of the proposed Government policy, and most especially if and when the charities concerned believe that they are unlikely to achieve any material change to the proposals. And personally, I believe that the disability benefit cuts (before the political fallout reached this weekend's crescendo) was a precise example of when such an invitation should rightly have declined as government seemed to want charities to legitimise or give credence to a policy which they were strongly opposed to.

However, if and when any government is willing to have genuine dialogue and demonstrates a willingness to shift its position when presented with evidence and even a moral argument, charities should always be ready to engage. In any such engagement, however, they should always be clear about their "red lines" and those principles which they will not cross. They must present a clear evidence base and / or the views of their beneficiaries to bring to the discussions. Ideally, in an issue like the future of benefits for people with disabilities, charities should seek a collective position and stick to it. And they must be ready to walk out/disengage if they feel they have been misled.

In this instance, after the resignation of the Secretary of State, and the Treasury's acceptance that the policy is no longer viable - or at least not in the form that the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Treasury had previously proposed, charities concerned with disability have a rare and unusual opportunity to act collectively to kick such cuts far beyond the long grass and to promote policies that will benefit their members and beneficiaries. Inevitably, this may mean that they become involved in wider policy debates about expenditure priorities, taxation and fiscal/ monetary policy - but as long as such charities contributions are: rooted in core agreed principles; remain focused on the specific issues at stake; make an evidence based case, which has the consent of its members and beneficiaries; and steer clear of party politics - such engagement is fully legitimate.

One final observation, and here I address trustees of charities: you must be brave. You also have to be alert to the potential impact of campaigning, especially in high profile and contentious matters, but this should never be an excuse for not speaking and acting. No gagging clause or the Lobbying Act should stand between trustees and your duty to speak out on behalf of your charity's beneficiaries and the wider community.

There is every reason to expect that one output of the events of last week will be an enlivened and more confident charity sector. This can only be a good thing, for this is about more than a disability issue - it is about democratic pluralism and social justice.

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