Government Should Encourage Charities to Challenge and Campaign for and Against Policy - Not Seek to Stifle Them

08/02/2016 15:32 | Updated 08 February 2016

Last year, charities were threatened with the Lobbying Act's "gagging clauses", and now we learn that the Government wants to prevent charities using public money to participate in contemporary debates on public policy.

One could be forgiven for assuming that the Government does not want to be challenged, embarrassed or offered alternative policies by a sector that has always had the right (and, I would argue, the moral duty) to speak up for its beneficiaries, especially vulnerable communities and individuals. This feels like bullying or gagging - I hope that neither is intended but sadly charities will that they are.

Over the last few centuries, charities have both provided for people and addressed wider community interests by engaging in policy debates. And by doing this, charities have been able to make a significant contribution to creating a fairer, more tolerant, inclusive and just society and made both the economy and environment more sustainable.

Surely there can be little doubt that charities are able to draw on evidence, based on the direct experience of their beneficiaries and clients, as well as the communities whom they serve. Such evidence arises when a charity delivers a contract for the public sector or undertakes activities funded through public sector grant or through other fundraising activities - it is funding neutral.

The reality is that charity members, users and beneficiaries as well as their specialist expert staff and volunteers have much to contribute to policy and practice development. So why this drive from the current Government to constrain them? Is it simply because this experience and expertise does not always complement government ideology or policy?

I really am perplexed here, because my experience suggests that mature and confident politicians welcome informed debate and campaigns, even when they disagree with them. There is no 'threat' here. Quite the reverse - there are many examples of politicians voluntarily changing or sharpen their own opinions as a result of evidence from charities, so why close or narrow this access to evidence?

Politicians may be worried that charities may sway public opinion and, in some cases, be more trusted by the public on a particular issue than ministers. And indeed, there is evidence that charities, on many social and moral issues, are often more enlightened than politicians focused on tabloid headlines and what they perceive to be popular opinion. Inevitably, this may occasionally cause discomfort for some politicians.

My view is that if a charity exists to serve its beneficiaries, it should be able to do so in every way and in every dimension. This may be through services, advocacy, contributing to policy development - and also campaigning. All these are appropriate ways to achieve a charity's mission.

Although traditionally some charities have received public sector grants to support their core costs on an understanding that this enhances their ability to contribute in to policy development, few (if any) charities take public money solely to campaign.

And think tanks, which are registered charities, may be funded by governments to develop policy and influence, inform or shape legislation.

For example, a charity established to support homeless people may provide housing or advice - but surely it is equally entitled to argue for more public investment in housing and for a reversal of recent housing benefit changes such as the "bedroom tax". Through such actions, it may it can create more benefit for its beneficiaries than via direct services delivered on their own. Similarly, a charity running food banks may or may not receive public money but surely it has the right (and perhaps a duty), to highlight and challenge the welfare changes and other policies that are leading to increased demand at the food banks.

Surely charities have the right to seek to address the causes (and in particular, the underlying whole system and macro-policy causes - as well as the symptoms) of a social wrong, and this often requires advocating legislative change or public expenditure.

Through the proposed legislative changes, the Government is not intending (at least, I fervently hope that it is not saying) that charities cannot both receive public sector funding and also campaign or work on the policy agenda as well. The Government claims that this is the case and that it merely wishes to ensure that traceable public money does not fund the latter activities. However even this will still seriously restrict a charity's ability contribute. And even if one accepts the Government's premise, there will be many serious challenges for trustees and chief executives.

For example, if a charity makes a modest surplus on a public sector contract, will it be forbidden from using this money to part fund its wider campaigning activity?

Charities sometimes put their public sector contracted activities into trading subsidiaries but would normally expect to covenant surpluses back to the charity, and for the contracted services to contribute to overheads and senior leadership executives' salaries. In this way trading activity supports the wider activities of the charity. So trading companies may not be the solution for charities delivering public contracts as there now be will be a need for trading companies to make no financial contribution to their parent charity, in the event that the latter undertakes some degree of lobbying?

Be in no doubt - tracking monies will create accounting labyrinths and cost money that otherwise could support a charity's objectives.

I am clear that trustees and chief executives have an explicit duty to ensure that their charities steer clear of partisan politics, use their scarce resources (money and people) prudently and stay true to their mission and values. They also have a duty to ensure full transparency for the charity's use of these resources and the impact it makes from so doing. They wish to comply with legislation and regulation but will be tested by bad legislation. However, above all, trustees and CEOs have a duty to ensure that their charity fulfils its mission and its obligations to its beneficiaries. And that often means 'speaking out' and seeking to influence both policy and legislation.

The threat of challenge and the complexity of disentangling finances and activities across most charities will be very significant. Consequently, I do fear that the proposed legislation could too easily become a disincentive to fulfil their charitable mission of representing the interests of their beneficiaries by speaking out on or seeking to influence public policy. Indeed that this may be the Government's intention and hope.

Charities are the heart of a strong healthy civil society, and this means that charities should be at the heart of public policy discourse. Occasionally, charities will challenge and even oppose governments of every political hue. They will also promote alternative evidence-based policies. Surely this is the essence of a pluralistic democracy?

I hope that the Government will have a change of heart, and recognise and respect the case being made across the political spectrum and by charities. Instead of stifling the right and ability of charities fully to address the interests of their beneficiaries, it should be legislating to protect charity's inherent right to campaign.