Will charities submit to being muzzled, as is expected of them?

The sector must get its act together if it is to provide effective opposition to government restrictions, says Matthew Sherrington

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

It’s been yet another bad news week for charities. The Kids Company documentary showed it was more potty a regime than you could have imagined. Tabloid front pages attacked Age UK and Help for Heroes over activities seemingly at odds with their values. Friends of the Earth faced questions about campaigning through its company.

And the week was capped off with the government announcing all future charity grants will have a gagging clause stopping them using the money to influence government. At least The Observer published a usefully sensible and reflective editorial at the weekend.

"These attacks on charities aren’t going to stop," I wrote here exactly two years ago. It’s depressing not to have been proved alarmist. More depressing that some of the stories have been legitimate scrutiny into charity activities found wanting – whatever you might think of the media’s motivations. And it’s disheartening that the charity sector as a whole has largely sat on its hands, individual charities weathering the storm when it has poured down on them, but generally keeping their heads down with an attitude of "I’m alright, Jack".

There’s a lot of outrage about the gagging clause, and rightly so. The government is cutting off its nose to spite its face, as one chief executive told me. The civil service has itself been cut back to the point where it outsources policy development and evaluation to charities in several areas – specifically to "influence" the government. How’s that going to work now? Another CEO told me they already had gagging clauses but, if needs be, he’d ignore them: "It would be interesting to see what they’d do. They need us for what we deliver."

Matthew Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office, is rather disingenuous when talking of "the farce of government lobbying government". Public sector workers paid by government funds – doctors, teachers and the police – aren’t gagged from speaking out, though you might think the government wants them to be and ignores their views on how best to run what they do best. You don’t see the oil industry banned from lobbying on the back of their massive government subsidies.

Unlike businesses, which have a profit motive behind their lobbying for policies and subsidies, charities speak for their service-users and beneficiaries, and rightly speak up to influence policy that has an impact on them. Fundamentally, the government is shutting its ears to the insight and experience derived from the work it funds, because it anticipates it will be uncomfortable listening.

Some of the outrage I’ve seen doesn’t really answer what is, at face value, seductive logic: why should government, paying through grants or contracts for the delivery of services, pay for the supplier to criticise or lobby them? At face value, charities would be stronger if they funded their policy and campaigning work independently – which is what the government position allows for – and made a virtue of that. But that just wouldn’t stop detractors complaining when what they want is to silence critical voices.

It’s a sad day when the prevailing government narrative is of charities squealing about their income and lobbying for it, rather than that they have a valuable role to play in injecting the experience of their beneficiaries into policy development. Even small charities are looking at the big ones with resentment for both monopolising contracts and queering the pitch for everyone with their fundraising.

Some comments against the gagging clause have highlighted free speech, unfairness compared with corporate lobbying and that it would be too difficult to account for expenditure on "influencing" in a way that separates government from private funding. All smack somewhat of entitlement.

We come back to the culture, values and identity of the charity sector. I wrote last month that big charities have lost touch with their public support by imagining they are the actors rather than the vehicles for people’s desire to see good done in the world. And the same institutional ego risks them believing the delusion that government funds the charity’s work, rather than recognising that, when it comes to contracts, they deliver the government’s.

There are important reasons charities should not be gagged from speaking out on behalf of their beneficiaries. But charities aren’t helping themselves by failing to get over their egos, simply bleating about being circumscribed, not getting their act together and not speaking out. If they stay on the back foot, they’ll be pushed over.

Matthew Sherrington is a charity leadership and communications consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington

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