From the archive: Charities need to find ways to speak out

Michael Harris /   January 20, 2013 at 8:32 PM 5,750 views

This week, the report of an independent inquiry suggested that charities are increasingly afraid to challenge public policy because of fears of retribution from government, especially if they are reliant on public contracts. At the same time, the Government proclaims its commitment to ‘open policymaking.’ If we are to have better policy, it’s vital that charities find ways of speaking truth to power.

According to annual report by the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector published this week, campaigning charities in particular are increasingly fearful of speaking out on behalf of vulnerable people because of the widespread use of gagging clauses in contracts and attacks by ministers on voluntary organisations’ freedom of expression. “Central and local government funding cuts are fuelling the problem. With less money available, charities are less willing to criticise government actions to protect their survival. Some charities are ‘self-editing’ in order to keep on providing services.”

The Panel’s report concluded that a charity sector reliant on government contracts would find it more difficult to criticise government policy. In one sense this reliance is exactly what the Government has been promoting with its now tarnished emphasis on the Big Society; did it also intend the Big Society to induce a Big Silence on behalf of charities?

Most worryingly, the Panel found that the charities most likely to be affected are smaller organisations working with ‘unpopular’ disadvantaged groups including former offenders, people with mental health needs, drug addicts, homeless people, asylum seekers, and victims of crime. These organisations are most dependent on state funding and because they are disproportionately based in deprived areas, are most likely to be affected by spending cuts.

The Panel’s report noted that “Overall, we suspect there is an increasing unwillingness to speak truth unto power”. To some commentators on the left, charities’ “silence” on government policy is tantamount to a “collusion” with austerity. But this overheated reaction ignores both the ways in which charities do still find to critique and challenge government (sometimes in private), and the tactical and strategic pragmatism that organisations seeking to influence policy have always required (what is realistic, over what timescales, with what funding etc).

Those on the right however have been increasingly vocal that charities receiving public funding should not be allowed to campaign at all; for them, the Panel’s report might make for encouraging reading. In particular, the Institute of Economic Affairs has long criticised what it calls those ‘sock puppet’ charities which (from its perspective) receive public funds to lobby government, typically in favour of ‘left-wing causes’. As Christopher Snowdon, author of a number of reports for the IEA, commented this week: “…true independence is contingent on financial independence.”

There is an obvious truth to this – those charities that aren’t reliant on public contracts have much greater freedom of expression than those that are. But it’s pretty rich for think tanks such as the IEA – with its charitable status (despite its clear political leanings) and its own lack of transparency with regards to funding – to lecture charities about being ‘sock puppets’.

In whose interests does the IEA speak – and how much does it get paid for doing so? At least the political purpose of the IEA’s argument is fairly transparent. As they comment, in a way that rather confirms the Panel’s concerns: “Governments are under no obligation to fund any special interest group and if a charity dislikes the ruling party enough to be briefing journalists and undermining policies, the government might consider it to be in its interests to direct taxpayers’ money away from malcontents and towards groups which are more sympathetic, or at least neutral, towards government policy.”

One suspects that what the likes of the IEA really object to is charities daring to point out that the often vulnerable people they represent might be suffering and that governments (of any stripe) might have a role in ameliorating or avoiding such harm.

Instead, the IEA seems to prefer that charities work to clear up the mess created by ‘free markets’ but without making a fuss. This ignores the legal responsibility of charities to advance their causes, as well as funders’ increasing requirements that charities demonstrate ‘impact’.

It’s obviously a difficult time to be a charity. What has been largely overlooked in this left-right ‘debate’ however is the danger that larger charities in particular come to act essentially as companies and are increasingly distant of the frontline views and experience of their service users, staff and volunteers. If we are to develop better social policy, it’s crucial that we hear these voices.

The Government appears to agree, with its stated commitment to ‘open policymaking’. As we’ve suggested before, in an age of social media and social networks, charities and trade bodies that are afraid to speak out increasingly risk being outflanked by ‘guerilla policy’ campaigns such as the Spartacus disability welfare grassroots movement.

Many charities face a tough choice – with government on one side, and the people they represent on the other. But as the Panel’s chairman, Sir Roger Singleton (a former chief executive of the children’s charity Barnardo’s), warned: “Without [action] we may see the voice of the vulnerable and marginalised being silenced, democracy being eroded and society impoverished.”

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