Regulation with Rosie: Censorship

The Charity Commission's Rosie Chapman on the censorship of charities.

The saying goes that whatever the US has now, the UK will get in five years. But discussion at the Child Poverty Action Group's launch of David Freud's report into charities delivering public services points towards another country that might be offering examples we should be extremely wary of: Australia.

The audience at the launch heard that the Aussie version of the Welfare to Work agenda requires charities to sign clauses as part of their contracts, which effectively means they cannot criticise those who commissioned their services. That's unthinkable here, but it's worth bearing in mind that, despite having no independent regulator, Australia is a decade ahead of us on this aspect of voluntary sector involvement in service provision.

We suspect self-censorship happens here. But it's a considerable leap from self-censorship to having a gagging clause imposed by commissioners. This is a development that charities here need to be alert to.

It's up to a charity's trustees to decide whether or not to engage in public service delivery, but there are some conditions of charity law that aren't mutable, and a charity's independence is one of them.

At a time when our rewritten guidance on the extent to which charities can engage in political activity and campaigning is eagerly anticipated, such developments appear to turn back the clock. Charities don't exist purely to deliver public services on behalf of statutory agencies; take away their ability to speak out without fear or favour and they become something less.

Faced with such moves here, the commission would state that charities can't sign such clauses. And if anyone from the Australian sector is reading this, might I suggest a 'united we stand, divided we fall' approach?

- Rosie Chapman is executive director of policy and effectiveness at the commission 

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