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Charities Should Not Be Gagged - Government Should Withdraw Its Gagging Bill

27/08/2013 15:43 BST | Updated 26/10/2013 10:12 BST

It is clear to me that charities and other campaign organisations will be muzzled by the current draft of the Government's 'Transparency of Lobbying, non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill'.

In response, charities (and I note that the Electoral Commission has similarly expressed concerns) have understandably claimed that the Bill challenges their core duty to speak up for their beneficiaries and communities. They are rightly particularly concerned with those elements of the Bill, which amend existing rules on what groups, which are not political parties, can spend in a general election period on campaigns considered to be "conducted ... for election purposes". Specifically, the draft Bill lowers the maximum that can be spent before groups have to register with the Electoral Commission, from £10,000 to £5,000 in England, and in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from £5,000 to £2,000.

Clearly, charities, trade unions and faith groups of all sizes will be caught by these proposals. The complexity of the legislation, the lack of clarity, and possibly the Government's intent in drafting such a measure could collectively have the result of muting the voice of charities and groups of all sorts/sizes on the issues that matter most to them and the people they support. It would dilute democratic rights and the quality of democratic debate.

Such legislation seems alien to any modern open democracy that values pluralism of thought, ideas and policy. Perhaps the Government has made errors in the initial drafting of the Bill - and I most certainly hope that this is the case - or it really does want to gag charities and others. Regardless, the Bill needs to be withdrawn or significantly revised.

Charities and in particular the voluntary and community sectors, have always valued their campaigning and their advocacy for beneficiaries and communities. And these contributions are vital for a vibrant democracy. And surely, at a time of rising inequality and poverty, welfare reform, social exclusion, significant environmental concerns and much more - the sector's 'voice' has never been more important?

Governments (of whatever political persuasion) and all political parties must be always be challenged when their policies are detrimental to a charity's beneficiaries and/or the wider public good. And charities should promote alternative policies in a positive manner. They must be pro-active and not simply reactive. They should endorse policies that are beneficial and not simply be oppositionist. And of course, charities should not engage in party politics. Rather, they should evidence-base their interventions and relate these to their missions and the wellbeing of their beneficiaries. And when they act in this way, they should be respected and listened to by politicians and public officials alike.

Most politicians that I know value the contribution that the charity sector, and indeed faith groups, trade associations and trade unions make to political discourse, and policy analysis and development. In my experience, they have typically welcomed such interventions and have commonly invited them.

So, I urge charities to continue to argue the case for their beneficiaries and their wider public interest duty, rather than for themselves as specific institutions. They should, in this sense, be utterly selfless. This, above all else, surely distinguishes them from business sector trade associations and individual companies intent on promoting their own and/or shareholder interests.

Charity campaigning and influencing, at its most effective, tends not always to be conducted in the public domain. Indeed, in my experience, some of the most successful impact is achieved through private dialogue rather than public demonstrations or media campaigns. That said, there should be room and opportunity for both, recognising the fact that sometimes governments force charities to adopt the latter because of a failure to listen or respond affirmatively to the former.

However, at all times and in all relations with politicians, public officials and government, it is wrong for charities and others to operate in the shadows with no transparency. It is vital that there is full transparency and accountability.

Ultimately, politicians make the decisions - for which they must be accountable. Accordingly, they should acknowledge advice and representations from charities and others, and they should be ready to be publicly criticised and challenged for their decisions.

Traditionally, politicians (whether in or out of government) have come to be used to being challenged publicly, even when this is seemingly very uncomfortable. It is part of being 'a politician. If this is changing, then I have to say that it is deeply regrettable, and any attempt to effectively 'gag' charities and similar bodies, which is what this draft Bill does, must be robustly and vigorously opposed.

I have long believed that 'voice' is an essential role for the charity sector. It has a long tradition and has made a huge impact on the collective life of our country and for countless numbers of individuals. If politicians and others believe that the charity, voluntary and community sectors should only be concerned with delivering services, be these funded by charitable contributions and/or delivered by volunteers - or contracted to the public sector - then they must think again. And indeed even when charities contract to deliver public services they must be free to advocate and campaign. Voice and representation matter - and so does charity led policy analysis, development and promotion.

As currently drafted, 'The Transparency of Lobbying, non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill' will stifle this voice. No doubt its supporters will argue that it only applies during the run up to the general election but the fact is that once on the statute book, it will easily be extended to other periods. And given that the public policy debate is at its loudest and most intense as a general election approaches, so too the voice of charities has to be heard during such a period.

I want charities, faith groups, trade unions and others to be able to speak out, unconstrained, for their members, their beneficiaries, communities and the public interest at all times. As a trustee of several charities, I feel most strongly on behalf of this sector and urge the Government to withdraw the offending clauses in 'The Transparency of Lobbying, non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill'. Democracy will be the stronger if the Government withdraws or significanrtly revises the Bill. A failure to do so will put charities in a very difficult place and prevent them from fulfilling their charitable duties.