The government should never seek to stifle debate or prevent legitimate criticism from charities, according to Mims Davies, the new Minister for Civil Society.
Speaking yesterday at a parliamentary reception organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Charities and Volunteering and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Davies said she had been "delighted" by Prime Minister Theresa May’s pledge to ensure the wording of contracts and grant agreements did not prevent charities from speaking out against government policy.
May promised to review contract wording in response to a letter from Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO. He called for clarity on the use of gagging clauses after The Times newspaper reported that up to 40 charities had signed contracts with the Ministry of Justice that banned them from doing anything to adversely affect the reputation of the justice secretary.
In her response, May said such clauses were intended to uphold high standards among contractors, but were "in no way gagging clauses".
Davies, who was given the charities brief last month, said: "Independence and freedom of speech are absolutely vital in this sector.
"Your role in providing a voice for everyday people is absolutely critical, and government should never seek to stifle debate and prevent legitimate criticism."
She said she hoped May’s response provided clarity on the issue and her own role was to listen to and champion the sector.
"I want to leave everybody with a clear message because I’m new in this role," Davies said. "It is that government and our communities need you, and above all we really do value you.
"It goes without saying that your actions, everything you do to tackle those burning injustices, enrich our communities and tackle those social challenges is absolutely vital."
She said it was crucial for the government to hear charities’ voices.
"We need your evidence, your insights, your expertise," said Davies. "And we need to you help shape that critical role when it comes to shaping public policy.
"We need you to do this without fear. Come and tell us what the challenges are and, above all, continue to tell us about the opportunities to work together."