Sir Roger Singleton, chair of the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector, warns that voluntary sector organisations are being forced to 'toe the government's line'
The independence of charities has come under increasing threat over the past year and one of the sources of that threat is the government, according to the latest report from the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector, published today.
The report is the second of four assessments to be made over five years by the panel, which comprises voluntary sector leaders. It is chaired by Sir Roger Singleton, former chair of the Independent Safeguarding Authority and a former chief executive of Barnardo’s, and funded by the Baring Foundation.
The latest report looks at whether charities have independence in their purpose, action and voice.
Sir Roger Singleton, chair of the panel, said voluntary organisations enjoyed widespread support because they are independent and distinctive, and because of their independent voice of behalf of unpopular causes.
"Our investigations show that in the past 12 months, the government has directly threatened that independence, requiring some charities which carry out work for government departments to toe the government line," he said.
The report says the "right of some voluntary organisations to campaign and criticise the government is now coming under direct challenge, self-censorship is increasingly common and lack of financial support and effective safeguards for independence threaten the future of parts of the voluntary sector".
"At particular risk is the support received from the voluntary sector by the marginalised, the voiceless and the impoverished, who may have no other advocate," it says.
"It is particularly surprising to see direct attacks by government and others on the freedom of expression of voluntary bodies working with the state"
The report calls for rules that would prohibit ministerial control of charities, stronger support for the Compact, the removal of any gagging clauses on charities related to public service-delivery contracts, such as in the Work Programme, and a strategy by third sector infrastructure bodies to strengthen sector independence.
The report also calls for a discussion on "what constitutes a charity", led by the sector itself.
"It is vital that charities act like charities if they enjoy that status, including exercising their independent voice," the report says. "Sector-wide bodies should articulate the distinctive value of the voluntary sector in delivering public services."
The panel says that one problem has been an erosion of the uniqueness of the voluntary sector, in particular its funding.
"The voluntary sector is increasingly being treated in funding, contracting and regulatory arrangements as interchangeable with the private or public sectors, potentially a mere arm of the state, a delivery agent or subcontractor without an independent voice," the report says.
It says that there is widespread non-compliance with the Compact and Best Value Statutory Guidance by local and central government, that local authorities are increasingly requiring the right to appoint community organisation board members and that there is limited consultation with the sector over funding and policy issues.
It also highlights "a growing climate of opinion against the campaigning activities of charities", particularly by government.
"The government recently advised local authorities to stop funding what it calls ‘fake charities’ that ‘lobby and call for more state regulation and more state funding’," the report says.
"Voices are being directly silenced in the Work Programme through so-called ‘gagging clauses’ in contracts that prevent criticism of the government and restrict the publication of their own data."
Ralph Michell, director of policy at the chief executives body Acevo, said the report had uncovered some "pretty disgraceful attempts by public bodies to gag charities".
"That is bad practice, plain and simple, and the government should respond to this report by taking steps to stamp it out," he said.
"But we need to be clear that that is the answer, rather than charities withdrawing from working in partnership with the state. We need better commissioning, not less commissioning."
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said: "We strongly support the independence of the voluntary sector and recognise that its ability to campaign freely is part of its value to society.
"Respect for that independence is now enshrined in the Compact, an agreement between the sector and the Government to ensure better working together.
"Our ambition is for the UK to be the most transparent and accountable Government in the world. However we have a duty to ensure all publicly released information is accurate and validated, and contracts with providers are designed to reflect this."