For the third year running, concern in the sector about the space to campaign continues to grow. According to our latest Campaigner Survey, 93 per cent of respondents say that the legitimacy of campaigning is under threat, with the lobbying act and "gagging clauses" looming large as factors.
Just before Christmas, I did some media interviews – including one for the Today programme – about gagging clauses. It was astonishing to me how little some of the journalists knew. One asked if it could be right for a Labour-aligned charity to criticise a Conservative administration. Oh, the irony. How do you give a short interview when you need to start with a Powerpoint presentation setting out the existing legal limits?
As a result of such media coverage, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations wrote to Theresa May to express concern about gagging clauses. In here response, she said that "it is vital that the sector's independence and freedom of speech are protected to allow charities and social enterprises to continue providing a voice for everyday people".
Bravo! But what she went on to say was revealing. She said that such clauses "do not prevent charities from campaigning" and pledged only to look at clarifying future contracts "in order to address the unfortunate perception that has arisen regarding these clauses".
We have been here before. The government told us that the lobbying act would not prevent charities from campaigning until we published our research showing incontrovertibly that it did. Despite the warm words, this is a government still essentially in denial. It might say the right things about charity campaigning, but its actions contradict its words.
That’s why the Sheila McKechnie Foundation and many others in the sector continue to be very concerned about the use of gagging clauses. Our hunch is that their effect is even more insidious when they’re used by organsations one remove from central government.
We have seen funding guidance that is deeply confusing, using the terms "political" and "party political" by turns, as if they were interchangeable. They are not. Political activity is permitted, even desirable, for charities. Party political activity is not. How are civil society groups supposed to campaign with confidence when even the people funding them cannot decide whether it’s legitimate?
All of this is going on at a time of extraordinary political disequilibrium. We might yet have a second referendum, or indeed a general election. Certainly, millions will feel the effects of Brexit, whatever sort we end up with. People need civil society to show its mettle: bearing witness, speaking out and amplifying their voices.
The current state of affairs is not good enough. We have to keep the pressure on. If an election is called, charities will be dusting down their "asks". Here is mine to you. Please make sure you include a clear ask on removing impediments to charity campaigning, whether found in gagging clauses, the lobbying act or misleading political rhetoric. This is absolutely fundamental. We need to find our voice in the interests of our beneficiaries.
Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation