Has self-censorship stopped charities from speaking out in the EU referendum debate?

At this once-in-a-lifetime juncture, it's a shame that sector voices haven't been heard more widely, writes Jeremy Taylor of National Voices

Jeremy Taylor
Jeremy Taylor

As the EU referendum looms, the campaign has increasingly spotlighted health. Claim has battled counterclaim about the impact of the referendum result on the NHS, public health and health research. Prominent figures have weighed in on both sides. Yet health and care charities have largely been silent. Why? This is National Voices’ story. It might throw a bit of light on the matter.

Stay neutral

Earlier in the campaign, National Voices – the leading coalition of health and care charities in England – took a careful look at the referendum and weighed up the implications of leaving and remaining for health. We were cautious about spending time on an issue that did not feel core to our mission. We were not confident there was a strong enough evidence base to support either position, nor were we confident that we had enough expertise to weigh the evidence. Our members were not urging us to take a position. And, frankly, we were somewhat nervous about getting on the wrong side of the rules on political campaigning.

So we did not take a position and instead produced a neutral briefing for National Voices members.

There the matter might have rested, but for two developments. First, a number of our members, having received the briefing, told us they would like us to get off the fence. Then the NHS started to figure in the campaign. The airwaves were abuzz with strident assertions about the impact of leaving or remaining on the NHS, some from people with no known previous interest in or any knowledge of health matters. Frankly, it was exasperating. If they could have a voice, shouldn’t we  who actually know something about the issues – have a voice too, on behalf of patients, carers and voluntary organisations that work at the front line of health and social care? So we tested the waters with our members by doing some private polling.

Overwhelming majority

The results were striking. Leaders from nearly 50 organisations responded (about a third of our full members). We asked them for their personal opinions on whether health and care would be better served if the UK remained in the EU or left. The overwhelming majority were of one persuasion. But I can’t tell you what persuasion.

Despite their personal views, all bar one of the organisations they represent had not taken a public stance. The overwhelming majority requested that National Voices, as their umbrella organisation, remain neutral too.

Too risky

Why had organisations decided not to take a position? The most commonly cited reason was that taking sides in the referendum would not be compatible with their status as non-partisan organisations. A few respondents reported concern about the Charity Commission’s guidance. A few others said that their charities did not have the capacity to engage with the issue, or that the referendum was not a high enough priority, set against their missions, to justify the effort.

There are good reasons for health charities to stay neutral, yet it is hard not to conclude that there has been some self-censorship in the mix and that, in a climate of heightened scrutiny and suspicion of the charity sector, and with the referendum campaign itself proving divisive and sometimes ugly, organisations have decided it is too risky to put their heads above the parapet. Who can blame them?

National Voices is a membership organisation and we respect the wishes of our members that we stay neutral. But I will admit to some disappointment that our sector is not making its voices heard more loudly in this referendum. This is a once-in-a-generation moment of democracy. We are handing the platform to those who lack our expertise and insight, and who do not necessarily share our values. That is a missed opportunity and a shame.

Jeremy Taylor is chief executive of National Voices, the leading coalition of health and care charities in England

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