Lucy Caldicott: Where's the charity voice on the EU referendum?

The Prime Minister has said he would campaign with anyone to keep the UK in the EU, even NGOs, so why has our sector's response been so marginal, asks our columnist

Lucy Caldicott
Lucy Caldicott

At the recent Britain Stronger in Europe event, the leaders and not-leaders of four political parties made the case for staying in the European Union. Questioned on why he was sharing the platform with other parties, David Cameron said it was such an important issue that he’d share a platform with anyone, including NGOs.

The only thing is, NGOs have been notable in their absence from this debate.

Earlier in the year, the Charity Commission guidance on EU referendum campaigning by charities was amended after it was criticised by NGOs themselves and their membership bodies. The new guidance clarified that charities "may consider that the outcome of a referendum is likely to affect directly, positively or negatively, the delivery of their charitable purposes". Rob Wilson, the Civil Society Minister, encouraged charities to speak out, stating that charity voices "should and will be heard in that debate".

Since then, I’ve been expecting more noise from the charity sector on this issue. As time ticks on, it’s getting close to being too late.

To be fair, not all charities have been silent. The environmental sector has been consistently active. Friends of the Earth has been vocal, coming out for remain with a clear policy statement early on, and running a series of events for environmental activists up and down the country over recent months. Last week it was joined by the RSPB and WWF, which issued a statement that remaining in the EU is the "safer option for our wildlife and environment".

Other charities have weighed up how their causes will be affected by the UK staying in the EU or leaving. Compassion in World Farming reviewed the potential effects on animal welfare standards in a piece on its website. The Fawcett Society looked at issues of concern to women in a live debate.

More recently, gauntlets have been thrown down to those in favour of leaving to prove how access to funding or protections for their beneficiaries would not be damaged in the event of Brexit. The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations demanded that the leave camp promise to replace any lost EU funding and reassure charities about potential changes to regulations that protect the vulnerable. A piece from Women’s Aid made a plea to both sides of the argument for women’s voices to be heard and women’s rights to be protected.

Amidst concern that many voters, particularly the more transient young, aren’t registered to vote because of rule changes, other organisations have used their reach with young audiences to encourage them to register. As the deadline approached to register, Greenpeace UK urged its followers on Twitter to make sure their voices were heard.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, much of the focus of the EU arguments has been on money. Cameron likened the effect of Brexit to putting a "bomb under the economy". The fortunes of charities and, thus, their "delivery of their charitable purposes" are inextricably linked to the economy. If the economy is weakened, aren’t they weakened too?

The debates for and against leaving the EU have also centred around the huge issues of our time: refugees and immigration. Many charities campaign to influence the EU’s policy on these issues, but I haven’t seen comment on the effect of a Brexit on their work. I can’t believe it wouldn’t have an impact. A letter to The Guardian signed (in a personal capacity) by many chief executives and former chief executives of international development charities made the broader point that the UK is better placed to fight international poverty from within the EU.

If this is the most important decision voters are going to make, it does seem a missed opportunity for charities not to be making their views heard on all sides of the debate. David Cameron said he'd share a platform with NGOs on this issue. I think they should take him up on this offer.

Lucy Caldicott is a consultant working on charity leadership and a board member of several organisations, including the Fundraising Regulator

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