Charities should feel free to campaign on EU referendum, says Rob Wilson

The Minister for Civil Society says he welcomes the fact that charities' voices 'should and will be heard' in the debate

Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society
Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society

Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, has said charities should feel free to campaign in the run-up to the EU referendum.

Speaking at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' annual conference in London yesterday, Wilson said campaigning was a legitimate activity for charities and they should be able to make their voices heard in the debate before the 23 June vote.

His comments come after the Charity Commission published guidance on the EU referendum last month, which was criticised by some in the sector as misinterpreting the law and putting pressure on charities not to get involved.

An amended and softened version of the guidance was published two weeks later, in what one sector lawyer described as a "significant climbdown" for the commission.

Yesterday, Wilson said: "I have always been clear that [campaigning] can be a legitimate role for charities, and one I respect and value.

"The law – of course – sets some limits, but provided charities remain within these and stay out of party politics, they should be able to speak up on behalf of their beneficiaries.

"That remains the case in the context of the EU referendum – and I welcome the fact that charities’ voices should and will be heard in that debate."

In his speech he also announced a series of round-table meetings, chaired by Sir Martyn Lewis, chair of the NCVO, to examine how more small and medium-sized charities could be supported to access public sector contracting and grant opportunities.

"Small and medium-sized charities are especially close to my heart," said Wilson.

"These are often the ones that achieve the best impact locally and sometimes struggle in the shadow of their larger cousins."

When asked whether he thought the anti-lobbying clause added into all government grant agreements from May might dissuade smaller charities from wanting to compete for such funding, he told Third Sector he did not see why it would, and said concerns raised about the clause had been "overdone".

He said: "We’re not stopping people advocating any cause that they want to advocate. All we’re saying is that it must be used for that specific cause unless you have written permission from the minister to be using it for something else, but it doesn’t stop you using other funds to advocate.

"I’m a very strong believer that charities ought to be able to speak up for their beneficiaries and I have said that from day one on the job, but when taxpayers’ money is being spent we have to be quite clear about what it's spent on."

Earlier in the day, Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of NCVO, said the clause was a clear breach of the Compact, the agreement set up to govern how public bodies and charities should behave towards each other.

But Wilson rejected this, telling Third Sector he did not believe the clause broke the agreement. 

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