The government’s new anti-campaigning clause could be more damaging to the voluntary sector than the lobbying act, Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, has warned.
Etherington voiced his concerns about the new clause, which will from May prevent charities from using grant funds from central government to lobby for policy change, at an event about charity regulation held at Birkbeck University in central London last night.
Etherington said the new clause was "potentially more damaging than the lobbying act" because the act covered specific activities during an election period and it had been weakened by amendments made while it went through parliament.
He said it had been difficult to assess how much of a "chilling effect" the lobbying act had actually had on charities during the election campaign.
But he said the new clause was more worrying because it was policy rather than legislation and therefore potentially more difficult to lobby against.
Etherington said he thought the clause might also be "the thin end of the wedge", which could lead to organisations that received any element of public money being told they could not campaign.
He said: "That’s why you have to draw a line in the sand on this issue, because otherwise it might become more problematic – these guys aren’t going to stop on this issue."
Etherington rejected the idea that the string of negative news stories about the charity sector over the past year were connected to the change of policy around lobbying as part of a conspiracy.
High rates of charity chief executive pay and aggressive fundraising tactics were examples of concerns raised by newspapers that resonated strongly with public opinion, he said.
When there’s public resonance, he added, a different style of leadership was required and the charity sector had to be told that some things needed to change.
"There are other areas we’re being challenged in where I think there is no resonance or it is wildly factually inaccurate – and there you can be quite robust," he said.
"When it comes to campaigning and the threat to influencing public policy, I honestly believe that has no resonance with the public whatsoever. If you ask a lot of charity supporters, they will tell you they expect charities to campaign on their behalf."
Lucy de Groot, former chief executive of Community Service Volunteers, and Rob Macmillan of the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham, also spoke at the event, chaired by Joe Irvin, chief executive of Living Streets, the charity for pedestrians.