Why we must take on the civil society sceptics to defend charity campaigning

23 October 2017

A civil society that can speak truth to power is a fundamental part of strong and vibrant democracy. Yet, according to the latest nfpSynergy survey, almost a third of Conservative MPs think that charities should be prevented from lobbying. 

The findings, which were released less than a week after the government announced it would not make any changes to the much-despised Lobbying Act, make uncomfortable reading for charity campaigners. 

What do MPs really think about charity campaigning?

The poll asked politicians from all parties to list their priorities for the charity sector. 

32% of Conservative MPs said that preventing charities from lobbying was a high priority. A staggering 52% of Conservative MPs listed preventing charities who receive government funding from lobbying as a high priority, while 11% saw it as a top priority. 

The survey shows that scepticism about charity campaigning is not confined to the government benches. 17% of Labour MPs saw preventing charities who receive government funding from lobbying as a high priority.

38% of Labour MPs said repealing the Lobbying Act was a high priority, and 18% saw it as a top priority. Among Conservative MPs, only 5% said it was a high priority and 0% a top priority.

I can’t help but wonder if the results would have been different if the pollsters had worded the questions better. What if they had said “reform” rather than “repeal”, or “campaigning” rather than “lobbying”? Nevertheless, the numbers appear to be evidence of a disturbing trend.  

What do these results mean for charity campaigners?

The government’s refusal to revise the Lobbying Act, which places rules on what civil society groups can say and do at elections, was a bitter blow for charity campaigners. 

We were told that the reason for not implementing the reforms – which were recommended by a Conservative peer and backed by a cross-party House of Lords Committee – was a lack of parliamentary time.  Yet at the Conservative Party Conference, the government announced new legislation. 

The survey results suggest that the real reason is likely to be more profound. While support for individual charities and their campaigning work remains high among parliamentarians, it seems that some are not convinced that charities and civil society groups should be engaging in political activity at all, let alone at such a critical time as an election. 

The Lobbying Act isn’t the only restriction on charity campaigning in the UK. Government departments are, one by one, rolling out anti-advocacy clauses that prevent charities that receive public grants using them to fund policy engagement. The Charity Commission guidance issued prior to the Brexit referendum, made it almost impossible for many organisations to join the public debate. 

In a letter to Bond, sent earlier this month, the Minister for the Constitution Chris Skidmore said: “The Government recognises and values the important role of charities in undertaking non-partisan campaigning that supports their charitable purposes. Whether through raising awareness, contributing to the development of policy or advocacy on behalf of beneficiaries, this is a strength of our democracy.”

Without action, these words ring hollow. The government needs to walk the talk. At no time is this more crucial. 

Research by Civicus shows that restrictions on civil society are increasing around the world. Civil society in other countries – especially those where democratic rights and freedoms are under threat – look to Britain as a global beacon on civic space. At present, the UK government, is letting them down. 

We shouldn’t need to make the case for charity campaigning, but it is clear that we do. Not just for ourselves, but for civil society groups and activists around the world who face much worse restrictions than we do.

The results of this latest poll suggest that to reverse these restrictions, we need to change the views of our parliamentarians and those who govern us. We need to challenge the civil society sceptics head on, and make the case for campaigning.   

Making the case for campaigning

Campaigning is at the heart of what charities do. This is because we want to address the root causes of problems and fundamentally change the world and the country we live in for the better. Often, the best way to do this is through changing legislation and public policy, or behaviour and attitudes.

Charity campaigning is also central to our democracy, amplifying the voices of those who are marginalised and holding the powerful to account. It can also make the policy process more effective and inclusive. By bringing in different perspectives, charities provide decision makers with access to valuable insights. We have expert knowledge and robust evidence that can be used to improve public policy and the delivery of much needed services.

Charities have always campaigned. Civil society advocacy has been the driving force behind many of our great social reforms, from the abolition of slavery, to the introduction of seatbelts, and the achievement of equal marriage. On the international stage, charity campaigning helped to ban landmines and achieve debt cancellation for the world’s poorest nations. 

Put simply, charity campaigning has saved lives and made them better; a legacy that we are and should continue to be rightly proud of. 

About the author

Rowan Popplewell

Rowan is Bond's policy manager focusing on civic space and the operating environment. She supports organisations from across the development and environment sector to respond to restrictions on advocacy and campaigning in the UK.