THE BLOG

Labour Will Put Charities Back at the Heart of Society

12/12/2014 15:21 GMT | Updated 11/02/2015 10:59 GMT

Not long ago David Cameron put charities at the heart of his offer to the British public. Just five years later the reality of his Big Society can be found in the lengthening queues at food banks, run by overstretched charities up and down the country dealing with the fallout from his government's political choices.

This much was foreseeable, but more surprising has been the hostility shown to so many of the charities who've tried to speak out about the human costs behind the statistics. The picture over the last few years is bleak. The Lobbying Act, supposed to bring more transparency to the lobbying industry and politics instead restricts the ability of charities and campaigners to speak out. Judicial review has been restricted, employment tribunal fees have been hiked and legal aid has been slashed.

Those changes have gone alongside attacks on 'left wing' charities by the Justice Secretary, backbench MPs attacking Oxfam for being "overtly political" and threats made by government advisors to food bank charity the Trussell Trust for raising concerns over government policy. Put together the picture is one of a government that is running scared of it's record, not tolerating challenge.

No relationship between government and charities will ever be comfortable, and nor should it be. Charities who see injustice among their beneficiaries don't just have a right but a duty to speak out. So often they speak for those who don't have a voice and their campaigns have led to huge strides forward, helping to end slavery and found the welfare state in the past or campaigning to end world hunger or child poverty today.

That's why this week I set out Labour's different approach that rejects the hostility of recent years. In government we will be robust in defending our actions, but just as robust in defending the right of charities to disagree.

That's why a Labour government will repeal the Lobbying Act and replace it with a register of all lobbyists, not just the tiny minority of lobbyists covered by the current Act. Maeve Sherlock has been working with the sector to make sure that charity reporting requirements are clear and not onerous. Ridding us of this pernicious, confusing, unnecessary law is just one part of our commitment to repair the damage this Tory-led government has done to the relationship between the state and charities.

We will make sure that unnecessary gagging clauses disappear from public contracts and write these commitments into a Compact, a new deal between charities and government.

We also recognise the damage judicial review changes have done. We've voted against these changes at every step and we will act in government to fully restore judicial review to its rightful constitutional place, that allows charities to be able to hold the powerful to account. Only in the last week a charity used judicial review to overturn a book ban in prisons with profound consequences for prisoners' rehabilitation. It was this sort of poor decision making that judicial review exists to challenge. Yet as the shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter recognised, the changes that this government have brought in expose charities and others to huge financial risk, and will have a chilling effect on the willingness and ability to challenge. So a Labour government will overturn them, give charities back their voice and their ability to campaign for the issues that they were founded to do. Let's end this wasteful battle between the state and charities that leaves us all the poorer.

Throughout our history charities and other civil society groups have acted as a buffer between the individual and the state and consistently spoken truth to power. In challenging times this is a voice we badly need to hear. Let's put charities back at the heart of society, for real this time, and make these changes as part of our promise to listen and learn even when the going gets tough.