Gagging clauses in contracts and attacks by government ministers on those who speak out in support of the vulnerable are making some charities fearful, analysis suggests.
The result is growing concern about the extent of freedom of expression in the third (voluntary) sector, says an independent inquiry chaired by former Barnado's CEO Sir Roger Singleton, according to Patrick Butler, editor of society, health and education policy for the Guardian, writing in the newspaper on 22 January 2013.
The government has become "increasingly contemptuous of those provider organisations which also speak out against injustice and inequality, the inquiry says", reports Butler.
ThirdSector Online confirms that the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector is a group of charity leaders, academics and other experts on the sector who are producing five reports over five years on the independence of voluntary organisations. It is being funded by the Baring Foundation.
The new report is the second one from the group. Back in July 2012, Singleton said he believed that charities faced "real and present risks" to their independence.
"At a time of austerity, there is a danger that independence is overlooked in the battle for survival, even though that is when it is needed most," he declared. "The panel’s first report identified real and present risks to independence of purpose, voice and action."
The coalition is now being challenged to take action to uphold the proper independence of the voluntary sector.
"Without this we may see the voice of the vulnerable and marginalised being silenced, democracy being eroded and society impoverished," says Singleton.
His report suggests, reports the Guardian, that charities are self-censoring, that minority issues are being sidelined, that there is a fear of retribution from statutory funders, and that smaller NGOs working with "unpopular" disadvantaged groups are most at risk.
These include charities working with former offenders, people with mental health needs, drug addicts, homeless people, asylum seekers, and victims of crime.
Singleton says: "Maintaining a diversity of voices, especially on behalf of the most disadvantaged in our society, is vital to a healthy democracy."
Barnardo's, a large and influential charity, admits it has "not proceeded with a complaint against a private contractor because it feared that by doing so it risked losing other contracts," says the Guardian report.
The charity, which originated in the nineteenth century but is still needed in twenty-first century Britain, works in the areas of fostering and adoption, young carers, sexual exploitation, child poverty, domestic violence and children's services.
There is also fear that government, stung by criticism from some groups, wishes to restrict the capacity of voluntary organisations to engage in advocacy related to their charitable aims.
Tabloid newspapers, who have maintained remorseless attacks on asylum seekers, benefit claimants and other vulnerable groups are also contributing to these fears.
The Department of Communities and Local Government recently advised local authorities to stop funding so-called "sock puppets" and "fake charities" that "lobby and call for more state regulation and more state funding."
The December 2012 DCLG report, entitled '50 Ways to Save: Examples of sensible savings in local government', declared of charities and civil society groups: "Many of these causes may be worthy, but why should they be funded by taxpayers? Councils should also review their memberships to regional quangos and membership bodies: such residual regional structures are redundant following the abolishing of Regional Development Agencies, Government Offices for the Regions and unelected Regional Assemblies."
Pro-government lobby networks attacking charities are also growing, with one describing a 'fake charity' to be "any organisation registered as a charity with the Charity Commission that derives more than 10 per cent of its income from the state."
Encouraged by right-wing thinkers such as Philip Blond, the government has been increasingly looking towards volunteers, charities and other non-statutory bodies to fill in the gaps created by huge cuts in public spending that are hitting the most vulnerable in society.
The attack of public spending is aimed at reducing the size, scope and capacity of the state at national, regional and local level.
Ironically, in spite of 'Big Society' rhetoric, charities have also seen funding cut significantly. There has been a massive growth in food banks, and other signs that the safety net for the poorest in society is being removed as cuts - condemned this week by church leaders - bite hard.
The 'Big Society', which critics say actually involves removing jobs and support and then expecting people to do social and community work for little or nothing, has also put a large emphasis on 'social enterprises'.
But recent research from the University of Birmingham argues that the extent and capacity of this sector has been exaggerated for political reasons.
Despite threats, many charities are continuing to speak out about the real impact of government policies on the disabled, claimants, the unwaged and low waged, the homeless, people with mental health challenges and other vulnerable groups.
* 'Charities afraid to challenge public policy amid retribution fears' (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/jan/22/charities-public-policy-fu...), Guardian, 22 January 2013.
* Patrick Butler on Twitter: https://twitter.com/patrickjbutler
* 'Guidance - 50 ways to save: examples of sensible savings in local government', Department of Communities and Local Government (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/50-ways-to-save-examples-of-s...), 19 December 2012.
* 'Sir Roger Singleton appointed chair of sector independence panel', ThirdSector Online (http://www.thirdsector.co.uk/go/news/article/1141368/sir-roger-singleton...), 12 July 2012.