Third sector voices must not be silenced
Many Scotsman readers will yesterday have attended, or watched on television, services, marches and other events marking Remembrance Sunday. Among those paying respect were politicians.
Everyone there, minister or marcher, bore a common symbol, a red poppy. Although it is nearly 100 years ago that it was first suggested as a symbol of remembrance, the poppy seems to be increasingly significant and effective as the visual representation for one the UK’s best known charity campaigns, The Poppy Appeal. The appeal draws support from across the political spectrum to the extent that all public figures and those appearing on television wear them.
Poppies have, for many years, been produced in Scotland at Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory in Edinburgh, but lack of finance almost resulted in its being closed in the 1980s and it was only as a result of lobbying at Westminster that the Manpower Services Commission agreed to accept the factory as an official “Sheltered Workshop”, entitled to grant aid and suitable for the placement of disabled ex-servicemen, so allowing production of the Remembrance poppies to continue there.
This ability, and even need, for charities to lobby is very topical. The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, currently being rushed through in Westminster, and the Lobbying Transparency (Scotland) Bill in prospect at Holyrood, are intended to make lobbying more transparent. Unfortunately, there is a real risk that this legislation could sweep charities into the pool of registrable lobbyists, or otherwise make them wary about campaigning for changes that would help those who depend on them.
As the Charity Commission says in its guidance: “The experience of charities means that it is right that they should have a strong and assertive voice.
“Often they speak for those who are powerless, and cannot make their case themselves. Sometimes charities confront extreme social injustice, which they want to tackle head-on. The work that charities do, and the major role they play in public life, is something they should be rightly proud of.”
Speaking to charities, they do not seem to have difficulty with the approach of the proposed Scottish legislation but there are many who have considerable disquiet about the Westminster Bill, to the extent that on 23 September, John Swinney MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, wrote to Chloe Smith MP, then Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, highlighting that “non-party political organisations in Scotland have raised serious concerns about the potential consequences of the Bill on charities and other non-party political organisations.”
The closing paragraph of his letter states: “I value greatly the role that Scottish civic society plays in developing and discussing new policy and legislation. I am, therefore, extremely concerned that this Bill could hamper, restrict or lessen that role. I urge you, therefore, to address these concerns by amending the Bill and ensuring that it will not capture and restrict the legitimate activities of non-party political organisations engaging in public policy.”
The relationship which politicians have with the third sector is, generally, very positive. Many individual MPs and MSPs have championed – and continue to champion – a range of good causes, adding their weight to support charities that benefit those members of our society who need assistance for many different reasons.
While they will individually, no doubt, continue to be seen to lend support to good causes, as a collective body, our politicians need to consider the negative impact that the Westminster Bill, in particular, could have on restricting the ability of our charities to campaign in the interests of those who are dependent upon them.
To me, it is clear cut – charities should not be caught up by this unnecessary regulation which is not even aimed at them. They are already regulated: in Scotland we have OSCR (The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator) and in England and Wales there is the Charity Commission. By law, charities may only carry out charitable purposes and must be able to demonstrate public benefit. Their accounts are scrutinised and they have to be able to justify what they spend. Charities have to be allowed to lobby – this is part of their purpose, to be a voice for those who need their support.
It is significant to note that the UK government last week (6 November) agreed a six-week pause of the aspects of the lobbying Bill that concern the voluntary sector, to allow for wider consultation.
In many respects, charities already struggle with the amount of regulation they face. Let us hope they use this pause wisely as politicians should ensure the proposed new legislation does not silence essential calls for help.
• Morag Radcliffe is a partner with Gillespie Macandrew www.gillespiemacandrew.co.uk