The voluntary sector has become less willing to speak out on important issues because its needs to stay on good terms with contracting authorities, according Clive Martin, director of Clinks, a membership body for charities working with offenders.
Giving evidence to the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector in London yesterday, Martin said that organisations engaged in government contracts were generally "cautious about biting the hand that fed them".
The panel, funded by the Baring Foundation, is an independent group of charity leaders, academics and other experts on the sector that will produce five reports over five years on the independence of voluntary organisations.
Its first report, published in January, said charities faced a growing threat to their independence, due in part to the "unnecessarily restrictive" terms of many service delivery contracts, which it said tended to favour large, private firms.
At yesterday’s evidence session, Martin said that it was not "a healthy mix" when voluntary organisations felt inhibited about voicing concerns they might have about contractual terms and relationships.
He said: "It is probably clear, even if it’s only on an anecdotal basis, that the ability for the voluntary sector to speak out on real issues has been lessened."
Asked by the panel if he had any evidence that smaller voluntary groups had felt unable to voice concerns, Martin said: "There is some evidence from the Work Programme of organisations having to act that way.
"The risks of them speaking out far outweigh anything else – most of them want to continue to work with these larger organisations. We suspect there is a large amount of information that is not coming to the surface."
Alex Massey, senior policy officer at the chief executives body Acevo, told the panel that he did not believe there was a fundamental connection between a voluntary organisation receiving public funding and a loss in independence or voice.
He said that his own organisation received funding from government but had not felt unable to be critical when necessary.
"We do not shy away from being critical and I think that is true of the majority of our members and the majority of the sector," he said.