Three major reports about the voluntary sector have appeared in recent weeks: one from the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities; another from the Lloyds Bank Foundation; and the third from the sector think tank Civil Exchange. All look at the challenges facing charities and all are emphatic on one point: the absolute centrality of campaigning for charities and other voluntary sector organisations.
The Lords Select Committee on Charities says in its report: "Charities are the eyes, ears and conscience of any society; advocacy is a central part of their work and a sign of a healthy democracy."
The Lloyds Bank Foundation says in Facing Forward: How Small and Medium-sized Charities Can Adapt to Survive that "central government should... actively seek the voice of smaller charities and their connections to local communities to inform policy and practice, particularly as Brexit unfolds".
Civil Exchange’s report A Shared Society? calls on Theresa May, the Prime Minister, to "make a clear statement about the legitimate role of campaigning and the importance of the voice of the sector in helping to shape policies and services".
When three separate reports from three very different and highly credible sources all issue such a clarion call for campaigning to be recognised as a legitimate and valued part of what charities do, you'd think the game was up. Surely now is the time for the government to make its position clear. Indeed, it is the lack of clarity that has been most damaging to the sector rather than any substantive change in the freedom to campaign.
The lobbying act was never supposed to curb charity campaigning, and the government should accept Lord Hodgson's sensible recommendations to reduce its scope.
It would be helpful if the government could reaffirm its commitment to the Charity Commission’s CC9 guidance on campaigning and political activity and put to rest rumours that this will be reviewed. It should also restate its commitment to the Compact, the agreement that sets out the relationship between public bodies and voluntary organisations, which was reviewed in 2010.
Despite the rowing back from the anti-advocacy agreement being inserted in all contracts, gagging clauses continue to be attached to some grants. The tampon tax managed by the Treasury has them, and it would seem that the Department for International Development is also attaching restrictions. The inconsistent approach at a national level is very difficult to manage. At a local level, it seems commissioners are interpreting the general mood in even more extreme terms. Small charities talk about being labelled "difficult", even if they just ask questions about policy approaches.
Expending so much energy on nitpicking over the nature of the relationship between charities and the public purse is a waste of energy. Given the scale of the challenges we face as a nation, we should be focusing on how the state and the voluntary sector can work together in pursuit of common goals. It should be a partnership underpinned by honest dialogue and, when necessary, an ability to challenge.
With so many now calling for it, will the government now offer the clarification and reassurance the sector so badly needs?
Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation