Opinion: Hot issue - Are charities too concerned with banning things?

Some press commentators have claimed that more charities are developing a taste for prohibition, and last week Cancer Research UK indicated that it wanted to soften its campaigning style and make it more positive

NO - BETTY MCBRIDE, director of policy and communications, British Heart Foundation

Health charities are uniquely placed to provide advocacy for vulnerable groups and bring about the sort of positive change that individuals affected by or at risk of disease cannot possibly achieve alone. This rarely involves calling for a ban - but if it's appropriate, so be it.

The British Heart Foundation exists to save lives from heart disease through research and public health activity. We use a balance of 'carrot and stick' in our communications and policy work. In a perfect world, the carrot approach would be enough to get people on the road to health, and they'd be supported by health-focused industry and government. Sadly, it's not always that simple.

When evidence conclusively proved that second-hand smoke harmed non-smokers, we lobbied for a full ban. The protection of the wider population far outweighs a smoker's liberty to light up in pubs. As the expression goes, "your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose starts".

Constant finger-wagging from the voluntary sector can seem wearisome, but in this case talk of a ban should be music to all our ears. Lives will be saved, and that's why we're here.

YES - SIMON CLARK, director, Forest

So why do they do it? To justify their existence and attract donations in a competitive environment, charities need publicity. To attract publicity, campaigns are increasingly strident and controversial.

Demanding prohibition works because it grabs headlines and polarises the debate, forcing people to respond to an often complex issue with a simple yes or no. As a result, some charities are increasingly supported not by the moderate majority but by single-issue fanatics whose aims are wildly disproportionate to the problems they seek to address.

Groups such as Action on Smoking and Health, CRUK and the RSPCA may be winning most of the battles, but will they win the war? Like many people, I will think twice about supporting any charity that promotes a prohibitionist agenda because banning activities that have been part of our culture for as long as anyone can remember is rarely the answer.

In the long term, hard sell and propaganda will be counter-productive because the public will view the protagonists with the same cynicism that we currently reserve for politicians.

Britain is supposed to be a liberal democracy that values tolerant solutions to social issues. Some charities would do well to remember that.

NO - PAUL CORRY, director of campaigns and communications, Rethink

We are in favour of wiping out the stigma of mental ill health and banning people from discriminating against people on the grounds of mental health.

However, we think that is best achieved by challenging the prejudice, ignorance and fear that surrounds severe mental illness.

People need the protection of the law but, in the end, it is education, awareness and challenging attitudes that will improve people's daily lives.

Hearing directly from people who experience the effects of mental health stigma is far more powerful in changing attitudes than piecemeal efforts such as banning words such as 'brainstorm'.

We make no apologies for being intolerant of mental health stigma - we campaign on a range of issues, including cannabis, to try to reduce it.

Rethink was the only mental health charity called to take part in the consultation process about cannabis classification and present evidence to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

We did not seek to turn the clock back or recommend retrograde measures such as increasing penalties for cannabis use. Instead, we set out a pragmatic and hopeful vision for the future, in which people know the risks and can get help if they need it.

YES - CAMERON WATT, adviser, Centre for Social Justice

I share the increasing public concern that big charities are devoting too many resources to campaigns of questionable value. There have been several national campaigns in recent years calling for bans that have appeared of peripheral relevance to the missions of the charities concerned.

Take fox-hunting, for example. The RSPCA was at the forefront of the campaign to ban it, but if its primary concern was animal welfare then would it not have been wiser to concentrate on intensive farming? This affects innumerably more animals and is far crueller than hunting.

Forthcoming legislation might allow charities more freedom to campaign, but I would urge caution before such freedoms are exercised.

YouGov polling for the Centre for Social Justice indicates a growing preference among the giving public to donate to smaller, local charities that make a difference on the ground rather than the national charities lobbying government.

There are, of course, a few campaigns for bans that do appear reasonable. With the dangers of passive smoking well established, it does seem appropriate for lung cancer charities to call for a complete ban on smoking in public places.

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