The voluntary sector is facing a "serious and growing threat" from government over its independence, a new report has found.
The third of four annual assessments from the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector, a group of sector experts established in 2011, says that the sector’s ability to act independently from government is being weakened.
Increased government interference in state-sponsored charities, a weak and under-resourced Charity Commission, growing political opposition to charities acting as a voice for communities and measures contained in the lobbying bill have all been factors, the report says.
A particular concern it highlights is the emerfence of "gagging clauses" in contracts for the government’s Work Programme, preventing subcontractors from criticising the programme or releasing potentially embarrassing data.
Reductions in government consultation periods, challenges to charities’ ability to challenge government decisions in court and the number of "charities subject to levels of state control, such as museums and academies", are also areas for concern.
The report says the Compact, the agreement that sets out how public sector and voluntary sector organisations should behave towards each other, "is important but is neither effectively enforced nor followed in spirit by the different arms of government".
It says that of six major challenges to the sector’s independence identified in 2013’s report, two have heightened over the past 12 months, while concerns remain unchanged year-on-year on the other two.
The panel recommends that the government puts in place remedies for a number of these issues such as establishing a "new settlement" between the sector and stakeholders, particularly the government.
The sector itself should work to change some of the negative views of its policy and campaigning role, the report says.
Sir Roger Singleton, chair of the panel, said the voluntary sector was on a "slippery slope" in which the independence of voluntary organisations was increasingly undervalued and under threat. He said there were insufficient safeguards to protect an independent future for the sector.
He said the sector was being "increasingly seen either as a delivery arm of the state or only legitimate where it provides services but does not speak out for wider social change".
A spokesman for the Cabinet Office said the report was not representative of government policy.
"We have always maintained the importance of the sector having a strong and independent voice," he said. "We welcome the report’s recognition that we are making it easier for the charities and social enterprises to work with the state, so that more people can benefit from the trust and knowledge held by the sector.
"The lobbying bill was never intended to restrict charities’ freedom to campaign and our latest amendments were welcomed by sector leaders."
Sir Stephen Bubb, the chief executive of Acevo, said: "The insistence that the sector be defined by ‘independence of purpose, voice and action’ rather than its source of funding is quite right."
He said that the panel was wise to highlight the urgent need to relaunch the Compact in a form that the government would respect.