Sir Stephen Bubb fears the Charity Commission will make its campaigning guidance more restrictive

The Acevo head says the regulator's response to a complaint about an Oxfam tweet showed it wanted to reduce the freedom of charities to speak out

Sir Stephen Bubb
Sir Stephen Bubb

Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the charity chief executives body Acevo, has said he is concerned that the Charity Commission will make its CC9 guidance on charity campaigning more restrictive.

Bubb was speaking at the launch of the fourth and final report of the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector in London yesterday. The report concluded that the threats to charities’ independence had increased over the past year.

Bubb said that the Charity Commission’s response to a complaint last year about a tweet sent by Oxfam, which said austerity was forcing more people into poverty, showed that the regulator wanted to reduce the freedom of charities to campaign under its CC9 guidance.

In response to a complaint from Conor Burns, the Conservative MP for Bournemouth West, the commission concluded that Oxfam should have "done more to avoid any misperception of political bias" over the tweet.

"If they carry that thinking through to a review of CC9 then we are in serious trouble," said Bubb. "They are not reviewing CC9 because they want to strengthen it; they want to water it down."

But Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, told the event he felt somewhat reassured that there would be no major changes to CC9.

Etherington said he had been worried that in addressing the complaint about the Oxfam tweet, the commission would return to an older interpretation of the law that was more restrictive than CC9. In his view, this did not happen. "That made me feel more comfortable about reviewing CC9," he said.

The commission last year appeared to commit to a review of its guidance Speaking Out: guidance on campaigning and political activity by charities (CC9), although it quickly clarified that this would not be a full, formal review.

Both Bubb and Etherington broadly welcomed the independence panel’s report and the creation of a new commission on the future of the sector, announced by the panel's funder the Baring Foundation.

The NCVO has committed £100,000 to this project, Etherington announced at the event.

The event also heard from a number of senior charity figures, including Paul Streets, chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation. He said the sector "whinges all the time", was too self-congratulatory and was wide of the mark in its opposition to the lobbying act, which he said would not affect 97 per cent of charities. He said the sector should not "fight battles that don't really matter".

Bubb rejected this suggestion. "It is not helpful to suggest that the lobbying act is of relevance only to the 3 per cent," he said. There were "plenty of smaller organisations that are feeling the chilling effect of the act", Bubb added.

Kathy Evans, chief executive of Children England, a membership organisation for charities that work with children and young people, said of her organisation's attitude to the lobbying act: "We're not going to be going quiet – I'm not going to be assessing how much time I spend tweeting or anything else."

Alan Young, senior policy officer at the infrastructure body CVS Aberdeenshire Central & South, said those who wanted a closer relationship between the state and the sector should "be careful what you wish for". In Scotland, he said, civil society was "almost suffocated because we and the government are almost one and the same animal".

He said this had come about because of a feeling of disconnection from Westminster, which the Scottish National Party played up to. Young said that a similar meeting in Scotland would have had half a dozen civil servants in attendance feeling that they were part of the same broad movement, and questioned whether that was healthy.

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