Anna Turley, the shadow minister for civil society, has quizzed the government about an anti-EU essay written by a Charity Commission board member.
Speaking during Cabinet Office questions in the House of Commons yesterday, Turley referred to the piece, written by commission board member Gwythian Prins, and asked Matthew Hancock, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, to explain why the commission’s rule on campaigning appears to be "do as I say, not as I do".
She said she welcomed the minister’s statement that charity voices should and could be heard on issues that affect them, "but it flies in the face of the Charity Commission’s recent gagging clauses".
She asked: "Will the minister confirm that charities are now allowed to speak out, but only if they agree with him?"
Hancock replied only by saying "no".
Turley’s question came during a session at which the government had again faced criticism from opposing parties about its plans to introduce an anti-lobbying clause into all grant agreements with central government.
Patrick Grady, the Scottish National Party MP for Glasgow North, said the policy was a mess and called for an urgent review of the operation of the clause "so we can be sure that the freedom of speech of charities and other organisations is not undermined".
Paul Flynn, the Labour MP for Newport West, said "worthy charities are having their lives made a misery by new bureaucracy" while large corporate lobbyists were free to lobby.
"Why does the government consistently dabble in the shallows, worrying the minnows, while the big, fat salmon swim by unhindered?" he asked.
Tommy Sheppard, the SNP MP for Edinburgh East, said the government had succeeded in uniting the entire British voluntary sector against it, and its actions in "trying to suppress debate and discussion are reminiscent of a totalitarian political culture".
Hancock said the government was continuing to work with charities, universities and others on the issue.
"We are committed to ensuring that taxpayers’ money is used for the good causes for which it is intended and not wasted on government lobbying government," he said.
The Charity Commission defended Prins over the essay he wrote, which was called Beyond the Ghosts – does EU membership erode Britain’s global influence?
"It is expected and understood that Charity Commission board members may have professional interests outside their role at the commission," the regulator said earlier this month.
"Professor Prins is an eminent historian and academic who writes on a wide range of subjects and whose professional interests are separate to that of his role as a board member."