New restrictions will make it harder for charity campaigners to voice concerns and hold the government to account, a group of civil society organisations has warned.
A report published today by a group of voluntary sector organisations says that many campaigners who made important contributions to the initial UK Covid-19 response struggled to engage with the government in later months of the pandemic.
The report, produced by the umbrella bodies Bond, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and Acevo, with Quakers in Britain, Unlock Democracy and the Civil Society Voice network, warns that plans to place new restrictions on the right to protest and stricter limits on access to judicial review will make it harder for campaigners to voice concerns and scrutinise government activity.
The report, Campaigning During Coronavirus: Lessons from UK Civil Society, includes case studies of 10 successful campaigns undertaken during the pandemic, including Women’s Aid’s call for more funding for domestic abuse support services and the homelessness charity Shelter’s work for a temporary ban on evictions.
But it says that despite these campaigning victories, voluntary sector organisations are already operating in a “challenging and at times antagonistic political environment”.
It says: “Charities have been censured for speaking out against racism and discussing the legacies of colonialism; non-violent protest groups and organisations campaigning on climate change and animal rights have been labelled extremists; and lawyers, particularly those who represent marginalised groups and individuals, have been accused of hampering the criminal justice system.”
It goes on to say: “Rather than recognising the important support campaigners provided in the pandemic response over the last year, the UK government is moving ahead with plans to place greater restrictions on the right to protest – as part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – and limit access to judicial review – an important check on the government.
“As we enter the second year of the pandemic, we call on the government and parliamentarians to recognise the contribution campaigners have made to the UK response to Covid-19 so far by resetting the relationship between civil society and decision-makers and protecting the right to campaign.”
The report urges the government to create a new framework that better protects the right to campaign built on principles including recognising that all people and organisations have the right to campaign and the right to protest and that the “government should recognise the value of campaigning in making politics better, institutions more effective and society stronger”.
Rowan Popplewell, co-author of the report and civic space policy manager at Bond, a membership body for international NGOs, said: “The pandemic revealed the power and benefit of campaigning.
“The political environment, as well as restrictive legal and regulations, continues to create barriers for campaigners seeking to deliver change for the people and issues they care about.
“As we enter the second year of the pandemic, we need to reset the relationship between campaigners and decision-makers and take steps to better protect the right to campaign.”