Opinion: The agenda for campaigners is shifting

Rosamund McCarthy

The Charity Commission is in the firing line over its guidance on campaigning (CC9). A survey conducted by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation and People and Planet supports the view that CC9 is ineffective and causes uncertainty. One seasoned campaigner told me that CC9 is a long list of what can go wrong, written in complicated language, with an over-emphasis on risk.

To understand the truth of these claims, it helps to take the historical perspective and to look at the progress the Charity Commission has already made. Until the mid-90s, it was barely acknowledged that charities could campaign. I remember the jubilation (and relief) that the first guidance brought: at last there was recognition that campaigning was a valid and legitimate means of engagement.

Inevitably, there were improvements to be made. The first guidance was presented in an overly cautious manner, and in 2002 the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit recommended greater focus on the positive benefits that campaigning brings. After extensive consultation, CC9 was revised in September 2004 to positive acclaim. The Charity Commission is now considering adding some questions and answers to CC9 and wants charities to understand the flexibility they have to campaign. This is excellent news.

Yet campaigners need to look beyond charity law, because other legislation arguably has a greater impact. CC9 recognises that charities can tackle root causes and are not limited to the begging bowl approach. Not so TV and radio regulations, which make it impossible for campaigning organisations to reach a mass audience with a simple message. Why? Because any kind of social advocacy is viewed as 'political'.

Other recent criminal law inhibits civil liberties as well as campaigning.

Legislation such as the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act needs to be challenged. Yes, CC9 should be revised to explain and signpost broadcasting and criminal regulation, but agencies other than the Charity Commission need to be lobbied too.

Not only is the Sheila McKechnie Foundation in a strong position to challenge campaigning injustice, but the NCVO has recently set up a Campaigning Effectiveness Unit. Chris Stalker, who heads the unit, has a wealth of experience and wisdom. Together these organisations are in a fantastic position to lobby for change.

Rosamund McCarthy is a consultant for Bates, Wells & Braithwaite and writes in a personal capacity.

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