THE BLOG
08/02/2016 02:47 GMT | Updated 07/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Parliamentarians of All Colours Must Stand Up Against the Government on Charity Funding

At 8.30am on Saturday morning, most normal people are having a lie in, at work or busy with weekend chores. Not so the Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock, who his weekend took the opportunity to sneak out an announcement - with no consultation or prior warning - that in future, any charity in receipt of public money must not use it to influence government or Parliament.

At 8.30am on Saturday morning, most normal people are having a lie in, at work or busy with weekend chores. Not so the Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock, who his weekend took the opportunity to sneak out an announcement - with no consultation or prior warning - that in future, any charity in receipt of public money must not use it to influence government or Parliament.

By this logic, a charity working with abused children could not advise on better protection laws or their enforcement, those brave souls working with refugees on the Syrian border must not also use the experience to say how our government might provide better aid, and those working in any field must not suggest improvements to the Freedom of Information law.

The government is getting a bad, but thoroughly deserved reputation for its approach to potential criticism. Having muzzled what charities can do during elections in the Lobbying Act, it's now trying to curtail the activities of workers' representatives through the Trade Union Bill, attacking the Labour Party's funding base, and - following the tax credits vote last autumn - looking to clip the scrutinising powers of the House of Lords.

Ministers refused to add the existing law that charities may campaign to achieve their charitable aims on to the face of the Charities Bill, despite allowing in-house commercial companies a free hand in lobbying parliament. The statutory register is a farce, including only public affairs consultants and not the big special interests. Not just firms on the same scale as Google, but those in the defence, food and drink industries, along with farmers and tax advisors.

So now we will know, penny by penny, how charities spend their resources on campaigning, but nothing about how much business spends on influencing government. That means fizzy drinks manufacturers can pour money into lobbying against a sugar tax but a diabetic charity would think twice before engaging with Ministers or senior officials. Charities meanwhile, working with offenders wouldn't be able to support measures to assist their rehabilitation. And presumably Housing Associations couldn't seek to influence the current Housing and Planning Bill.

Andrew Purkis, variously a former civil servant, charity chair and Charity Commission member, called Saturday's announcement "shockingly repressive, terrible governance", highlighting how it contradicted the key principle of the previous Coalition government's Compact, signed by David Cameron, "that receiving Government money should not affect their influencing work".

But he didn't stop there. Mr Purkis went on to say that the new policy "is monstrous. If you pay a grant to an independent organisation, you do not buy the right of that organisation to bear witness to what it is learning in its work for you, and give voice to people who otherwise have none". And that is so often the role of charities. To give voice to those who have none. A voice that it would appear the government simply does not want to hear.

Mr Hancock's half-past the hour announcement, briefed to the BBC, came just days after we concluded the Charities Bill in the House of Lords - crossing the 't's' and dotting the 'i's', as Peers considered final changes to the proposals made by colleagues in the Commons. An opportunity some might think that would have provided the perfect setting to make such a statement, when the issue could have been properly questioned. That however, appears not to be this government's way, with diktat preferred to debate. Parliamentarians of all colours must now stand up and demand that the Ministers justify or revoke this arbitrary decision.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town is Shadow Cabinet Office Minister in the House of Lords