Matthew Sherrington: Now the Electoral Commission is acting like a spy

Recent events suggest that charities are doing their job in speaking truth to power, and they should carry on doing so, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

Taking a stand and speaking truth to power takes some courage. When the response of those in power is an overbearing and disproportionate attempt to shut you up, you can bet it is because what you are saying is an uncomfortable truth.

So we have the Chancellor, George Osborne, in his Tory party conference speech this month, calling on business to take a stand against the charity sector, as though it were some fifth column. McCarthyesque. It’s bad enough that we have the lobbying act, a piece of legislation so hastily and badly drafted, so under-consulted and so unfit for purpose that from the beginning politicians have been at pains to say that charities have misunderstood its intention and overstated its consequences. Was it lazily drafted with unintended consequences, or is the "chilling effect" it has delivered exactly what was intended?

And what to make of Liberal Democrat MP Martin Horwood, himself a long-serving charity fundraiser in a previous life? He recently wrote that the bill was poorly worded and that charities should have been excluded from the terms of the legislation. He said a Lib Dem government would review and amend the bill "as a first priority". It’s a bit late now, and a bit of an empty promise given current polling. And remember, he voted for it.

And what has the Electoral Commission just announced? Charities will need to record the social media activity of their staff when it comes to any electorally sensitive communications, and it will be monitoring output to watch for contraventions. How will it do that monitoring? It won’t say, in case it helps people avoid detection. The mind boggles at the thought of Electoral Commission staff sitting in dark basement rooms, as spies do on the telly, using high-tech means to monitor the personal Twitter accounts of charity staff.

Of course I exaggerate, but what a waste of time. This, surely, is a stupid consequence of stupid legislation. Charities are feeling anxious about stuff they probably don’t need to worry about, and are self-censoring unnecessarily. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations warns against a storm in a teacup with a very sensible and measured comment. But it doesn’t stop the lobbying act being a heavy hammer to crack a nut.

The Charity Commission already has clear guidance on the acceptable parameters for charity campaigning. It is politicians who are conflating "political" and "party political". It is legitimate for charities to comment on the impact of policy – from all parties – when they are the ones with direct experience of the consequences. Implying this is "party political" is disingenuous and a clear effort to stifle criticism and debate. George Osborne’s speech suggests charities are doing their job in speaking truth to power, and they should carry on doing so.

Matthew Sherrington is an independent charity consultant at Inspiring Action @m_sherrington

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