Charities under pressure to keep quiet or lose government contracts

By staff writers
January 23, 2015

New research reveals that charities and other voluntary groups are in practice often absent from campaigns to tackle the root causes of poverty.

A report released today (23 January 2015) shows that voluntary groups, especially those under contract to government, face threats to remain silent about their experiences and many are fearful to speak out in case they lose their funding or face other sanctions.

The findings indicate a climate of fear and threats to free speech. They follow on the tails of a Charity Commission investigation into Oxfam after the charity warned of the “relentless rise of food poverty” in the UK. The Commission’s investigation was instigated after a complaint against Oxfam by Conservative MP, Conor Burns.

The report has added to fears raised by the former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries, chair of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (CCSDE), who said this week that charities and campaign groups have been “frightened” into curtailing their public work by the new Lobbying Act.

The report, Voluntary Services and Campaigning in Austerity UK: Saying Less and Doing More, is written by Dr Mike Aiken, a specialist in the voluntary sector, and is published by the National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA), a network of people working in the voluntary sector.

In his report, Dr Aiken states that “Voluntary services are confronted by implicit, or explicit, pressures to ‘say less and do more’; they face gagging clauses in contracts which threaten to stop them advocating and campaigning; the provisions in the so-called Lobbying Act, passed in January 2014, create an atmosphere in which it is difficult to speak out”.

The research gives examples of attempts to muzzle charities and shows who is refusing to stay silent.

One concerns a voluntary organisation engaged in welfare services that faced “subtle and menacing” bullying on more than one occasion from significant political figures to “do” and not “say”’.

The research reveals that voluntary groups under contract can be obliged to keep information or observations secret even when insights from their day-to-day work might help improve the service or conditions for local communities and individuals facing poverty and destitution.

The NCIA report says that charities which undertake significant government contracting work devote few funds to campaigning. Aiken claims that in the case of Shelter this appeared to be less than ten per cent of its income.

Despite attempts to silence voluntary groups, the report says that some still speak out, giving the example of the Trussell Trust), refuse to take government money (such as the World Development Movement) and join with campaigners to put wrongs right (as with Keep Volunteering Voluntary, a campaign against workfare).

Dr Aiken suggests that the situation for charities is getting worse just at the point when it needs to get better – in order to give a voice to those most affected by austerity.

He argues that the injunction to silence the knowledgeable voluntary organisation from talking about its experiences would be quite at home in any totalitarian regime that seeks to crush independent or divergent voices.

The report concludes that funding can, and does, act as a brake on the ability to campaign and asks: if the campaigning role is stifled who will provide the evidence to those in positions of power to effect changes; and who will support disadvantaged communities to have their own voice? It predicts that if this trend continues voluntary organisations look set to be “saying less” in austerity UK.

“Charities have played an active role in a democratic society and this can be understood as their responsibility and ethical duty,” insisted Mike Aiken after the report was published today. He added that they can “speak with authority and legitimacy to policy-makers”.

Penny Waterhouse, a director of NCIA, who published the report, is keen to emphasise that the news in the report is not all bad.

She said, “This research shows that some voluntary groups can, and do, speak out for a better world – if they are brave and think of their beneficiaries instead of their organisational interests and professional status.”

However, she went on to ask “Why, in Britain, does civil society need to be brave to exercise freedom of speech? It’s a bad, and dangerous, state of affairs.”

Launching the report, NCIA called on voluntary services to “exercise their civil liberties and join with activists and campaigners to advocate forcefully on behalf of their beneficiaries”.

The report is one of seventeen reports published by NCIA as part of their Inquiry into the Future of Voluntary Services.

* The full report, Voluntary Services and Campaigning in Austerity UK: Saying Less and Doing More, can be read and downloaded here (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document): http://www.independentaction.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Say-less-do-... (PDF).

* National Coalition on Independent Action (NCIA): http://www.independentaction.net

* More from Ekklesia on the Lobbying Act: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill

* Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement: http://civilsocietycommission.info

Ekklesia is an active member of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (CCSDE).

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