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Labour’s civil society strategy: a plan to unshackle charities?

The Labour Party has set out its plans for civil society should it win the next general election.

The strategy, From paternalism to participation: Putting civil society at the heart of national renewal, states that a strong civil society should be the cornerstone of deepening democracy.

The ambitious strategy outlines a very different approach to engaging with civil society compared to past governments of any political persuasion. The main theme throughout is devolving power to local communities, encouraging “high energy democracy” and energising, as opposed to stifling, civil society’s voice.

While more detail is needed on the logistics (this is a 14-page paper, whereas the government’s strategy has 123), it is a positive platform to build upon. Shadow civil society minister, Steve Reed MP, has said that the document is not set in stone and welcomes further input from the sector.

The strategy commits to repealing the Lobbying Act and banning anti-advocacy clauses, as well as the commitment to match the funding charities currently receive from the EU following Brexit.

Below are key takeaways from the strategy.

Strengthening civic society

The strategy recognises that democracy cannot work without a strong independent civil society, which must be at the heart of rebuilding a divided nation.

Civil society organisations are powerful agents for change and represent diverse groups of society that government cannot access. A strong civil society provides an effective check and balance to the government, which is essential to restore trust in our democratic system.

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The strategy states that all ministers will be required to take the needs of civil society into account when making decisions. This is a vitally important point which could have been expanded upon – UK civil society has a wealth of knowledge and expertise that government does not use as effectively as it could. Engaging civil society in a meaningful, inclusive and deliberative way ensures that government effectively serves the communities it looks to support.

An enabling operating environment

The strategy commits to repealing the Lobbying Act and replacing it with a Community Empowerment Charter, which will provide the parameters for charity campaigning and fundraising, based on the recommendations from the Hodgson Review.

Labour will also ban anti-advocacy clauses (also known as gagging clauses) in government contracts and grants, which have in effect silenced charities from speaking out against the government.

Bond has been working tirelessly to achieve changes to the legal framework that governs charity campaigning with our members and other voices in the charity sector. Labour’s measures should ensure that civil society is able to continue what it has been able to do throughout history – speak out to change minds and improve lives – without fear of losing funding or inadvertently falling foul of restrictive lobbying laws.

A Charities Leadership Programme will be established to ensure more leaders in the sector have diverse backgrounds and the sector will be challenged to improve its race and gender pay gaps. Charity trustees will receive equal status in law to governors and councillors and will be allowed time off work to carry out duties.

No mention is made on how the Charity Commission will fit into this new approach. It will be interesting to find out if Labour have any plans to change its role.

Giving civil society the resources to succeed

Following Brexit, the strategy says that Labour will ensure that the level of structural and investment funding lost from the EU is matched in the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. Civil society will be able to get involved in allocating the funding.

Social investment is cited as having a bigger role to play in funding civil society and Labour’s pledge to launch a review into its role, including Big Society Capital. They also plan a review on Gift Aid Small Donations to encourage small-scale giving.

The strategy cites that smaller charities have lost up to 40% of their income because of the shift towards contracting services, which they say disproportionately benefit large corporations. Labour will increase grant funding for smaller projects so smaller charities can benefit.

Bond would welcome the opportunity to discuss Labour’s civil society strategy with the shadow minister.

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