CHARITY CAMPAIGNING - THE CURRENT CLIMATE

20 July 2017  

As Parliament heads towards summer recess, the issue of charity campaigning remains in the spotlight. This is partly because – as the recent election revealed – the Lobbying Act can be applied retrospectively, which places charities in a perpetual short campaign and means many may refrain from carrying out activity in case they fall foul of the guidelines.

The Charity Commission has this week released their assessment of campaigning and political activity ahead of the 2017 General Election, which makes for interesting reading. The Commission reveals that it dealt with 41 cases during the campaign; 28 from proactively identifying concerns about non-compliance, and 13 from charities seeking advice about regulation.

A read of the report reveals little surprising. In fact, most of the cases where the Commission decided to take action where were there was human error (or, in some instances, a suspension of common sense, perhaps), and little controversy in the regulator instructing charities to act, or providing advice to try and prevent the actions of charities from being called into question.

That said, the Commission’s advice to Scope – calling for trustees to assess the reputational risk to the charity’s independence after the Labour Party (without permission) used Scope research in their manifesto – seems excessive. After all, charities must be able to put statistics, data and case studies into the public domain to promote the needs of their beneficiaries, and they have little ability to prevent anyone – political parties, candidates, journalists etc – from using that data to fit their own narrative. Furthermore, this use of their research demonstrates the value that charity involvement in policy making can be – they have the on the ground experience and relationships that can provide good evidence for the need for policy changes.

What’s more worrying of course (and much harder to ascertain) is the number of charities who refrained from carrying out activity because of the Lobbying Act. Most of the concern relating to the Act is to do with the climate for charity campaigning that it introduces, rather than the explicit measures in enacts. Thus whilst the Commission’s assessment is useful – and might help to dispel the myth that many charities are party political or in breach of the rules on campaigning – the report being prepared by the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement may be more illuminating.

As we have argued elsewhere, one of the reasons why the treatment of charities in the UK matters so much is because of the influence that is has elsewhere. Many countries across the globe view the UK as a leader when it comes to civil society, given the important role that it has had in shaping our country’s history and future. As a result, a number of countries have based elements of their own civil society on our own and continue to be influenced by policymaking in the UK (an example of the ways in which charities can influence through soft power), meaning that any measures in the UK that restrict the operating space for charities can influence the political environment elsewhere.

With that in mind, it is extremely positive that the Council of the European Union (of which the UK, for now, remains a member) unanimously adopted conclusions on EU engagement with civil society. Some of the most notable points included within the conclusions are:

  • The Council remains “deeply concerned by the shrinking space for civil society in an increasing number of countries” and is firmly opposed to restrictions to freedom of association, expression and peaceful assembly
  • It calls for the EU to do more to promote civic freedoms and increased accountability
  • It urges Member States commit to take concrete actions to protect and expand civil society space

By signing up to these conclusions, as a current member state of the EU the UK is committed to tackling the closing space for civil society. It is, therefore, essential that government ensures that policies in the UK are not having the effect of restricting the operating space for charities.

Unfortunately at present, challenges to the operating space for civil society do not only relate to advocacy. The Charity Commission is expected to shortly announce a formal consultation on whether charities should be forced to pay an annual registration charge, which is a policy that has had a damaging effect to civil society in other countries. In addition, the Commission has also announced plans to force charities to reveal funding received from overseas sources, which could have a negative impact on donations and runs the risk of creating a climate in which overseas donors feel that they are no longer permitted to give to UK charities.

We’ll be saying much more about these two issues in the coming weeks. However, that the UK is considering introducing policies with similarities to those adopted by regressive regimes across the world is extremely worrying. Not only does it provide some legitimacy to those policies, but it also risks other regimes adopting similar measures and arguing that they are acceptable because they have been implemented in the UK. The challenge for the UK Government now is to commit to the European conclusions to which it has signed up, and to ensure that the UK is promoting a positive operating environment for civil society organisations both here and overseas.

What are your thoughts? Let us know at campaigns@cafonline.org or on Twitter @cafonline

   

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