Newsmaker: Awkward squaddie

New foundation will foster campaigners and develop their skills.

It's like using a hammer to crack a nut," says Claire McMaster, referring to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which came quietly into force last month. As the chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, the charity established in February to support and develop campaigners, she believes the legislation is a cause for concern.

"It seems overly restrictive and has far-reaching consequences for campaigning," she says. "Campaign groups will have to use different tactics, which might not be as effective at getting their message across."

The law bans demonstrations within a half-mile radius of Parliament - unless they have been authorised by the Metropolitan Police six days before - and the distribution of leaflets calling for the boycott of a company, which can now be interpreted as causing economic harm.

"Time is an issue," says McMaster. "Protests are often organised at extremely short notice in response to a particular political development, so having to give six days notice means that a rally can be too distanced from the event."

She is also concerned for the fate of smaller organisations. "They will need the support of larger organisations with access to resources such as lawyers to defend themselves if and when they are caught out," she says. "Otherwise they could be out of action for who knows how long."

McMaster admits that many of the campaigns she has been involved in would have fallen foul of the new law, and having been involved in one campaign or another since she joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1987, while she was still a student, there are plenty to choose from.

She was campaigns manager for the Anti-Apartheid Movement before heading the Commission for Racial Equality's 'All Different All Equal' campaign as UK co-ordinator. In 1997, she worked on the Labour Party's election campaign, liaising with the black and minority ethnic press.

"My passion for campaigning came from being aware of the issues happening around me from a very young age," McMaster explains. "The miners' strike happened when I was a teenager and you couldn't not be aware of it."

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation, of which she was appointed chief executive in February, is named in memory of the former director of the Consumers' Association, who died last year.

"Sheila's legacy is her passion for campaigning," says McMaster. "She fought injustice and that's what we're about. It's a good time to have started up because there is a feeling out there that campaigning is back on the agenda."

The foundation aims to offer campaigners the opportunity to work with experts in areas such as the media, fundraising, politics and research through its awards scheme, which it launches in October.

"We want to provide a package of support," says McMaster. "We're not saying 'come on, we'll transform you into campaigners', but we are here for people who have some of those qualities but need support to help develop them."

She cites passion, persuasion, persistence and potential as attributes all good campaigners need and "something we will be looking to build on".

"Part of our ethos is that, although we are awarding individuals, in campaigning it is actually groups of people that effect change," she says.

"In a nutshell, we're here for people who are passionate about something and feel strongly, either because they're challenging injustice or because it's something that is affecting them as individuals."

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