Martin Sime: Resist attempts to gag charities

Martin Sime is chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations
Martin Sime is chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations
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LAST week Eric Pickles become the latest UK Government minister to join an orchestrated attack against charities. His plans to insert gagging clauses in all funding agreements to prevent charities from speaking out is the most recent in a long line of assaults on the work our sector does on behalf of our most marginalised communities.

Ministerial tempers flared around reactions to the appalling impact of welfare reform and benefit sanctions. There have also been rumblings about Oxfam’s anti-poverty work and ridiculous claims that charities are full of professional Labour supporters. Brooks Newmark, the short-lived Cabinet Office minister, summed up the government’s position with the proposal that charities should “stick to their knitting”, presumably leaving politics to the politicians. A recent survey found just 42 per cent of Conservative MPs think it’s acceptable for charities to challenge government policy.

Attacks on charities campaigning are nothing new, but the vigour and ruthlessness of late certainly is. Behind closed door threats of closure and withdrawal of funding are now more commonplace. The Charity Commission for England and Wales is packed with government supporters and seems hell-bent on further restrictions.

Even writing this article risks prosecution under the odious Transparency of Lobbying Act. It could be argued that I’m seeking to influence the outcome of the elections, and that SCVO should register and report on all such activity. Dissent is unwelcome and it must be stopped. That’s the clear message we’re being sent.

All of this noise, from the Chancellor, the secretary of state for justice, and others is designed to feed the antiquated view that charities should stick to amelioration and keep out of debate about the causes of poverty and inequality.

Our politics would be much poorer if such a conspiracy were to succeed. Many of the best things to emerge from governments in recent years have been the result of charity campaigns – the 0.7 per cent overseas aid commitment, the Minimum Wage Act and, here in Scotland, the Climate Change Act are but a few examples.

Politics is too important to be left to politicians. Millions of people join causes and campaigns because they want to challenge and change the status quo. The digital and global­ised world has revolutionised our capacity to join up, share information, and lobby effectively both locally and internationally.

In Scotland we’ve come to understand that active and engaged citizens are a real asset. The referendum grew the size of that asset in a totally unexpected way. The challenge is to get more people and organisations involved in politics and change. Political parties cannot be the only way to achieve this.

Whether we are being accused of siding with the opposition, funnelling donations to fat-cat salaries, or even being a front for extremism, the goal is to undermine our ability to hold politicians to account. Eroding public confidence in charities could also have a cataclysmic impact on donations.

Attempts to limit civic rights and withdraw funding must not be allowed to pass without a fight. No matter how you try to spin it, the right to campaign for a fairer society is simply non-negotiable.

As the election looms, I understand why ministers would rather suppress the uncomfortable truth that we are the fourth most unequal developed country and that poor economic choices have impoverished families, damaged communities and spoiled environments. They would rather shoot the messenger than deal with these issues.

Charities aren’t above scrutiny and, legally, we must not support or oppose a political party or candidate. Beyond that we have a critical role to play in challenging governments and campaigning for change. «