Last week the Conference of INGOs, part of the Council of Europe (CoE), published a report on its fact-finding visit to the UK in 2018.
Bond was the host organisation for this visit, and we assisted in organising CoE meetings with our members and other civil society organisations (CSOs) Bond also joined the delegation in their meetings with government and politicians.
The Conference of INGOs visits EU member states to better understand and see how decision-makers involve NGOs in policymaking. After each visit they produce a report, and the member state in question has the opportunity to respond. The report and any responses will be presented during the next Conference of INGOs session in Strasbourg, where Bond hopes to be able to provide our response.
The report welcomed the government’s Civil Society Strategy, claiming it was an important political step, but stressed that this was only the beginning of the conversation, and that action must now be taken – not least righting the imbalance between government regulation and civil society’s freedom to speak out, affecting our ability to campaign.
Other recommendations to the UK government covered Brexit, participation in decision-making, the regulatory framework, the Lobbying Act, and the operating environment in general.
The recommendation to UK NGOs was to increase public understanding and trust in their activities by taking accountability and transparency into account, and making information on finance, strategy, impact and ethics readily available to the public.
Below are our four key takeaways from the report.
1. The government should ensure CSO access to funding following Brexit
Brexit is outlined as a serious concern, with some CSOs saying Brexit has a monopoly on the government’s time. They also voiced concerns over a lack of information from the government provided to the sector about the consequences of Brexit. This particularly related to economic uncertainty and access to funding.
The report recommends that the UK government should ensure and secure the funding for all types of NGOs during and after Brexit.
2. UK civil society is a force for change in decision-making
The report said that policymakers in the UK “appear to be open to a direct, informal and pragmatic exchange with civil society organisations”. But they acknowledged CSOs themselves felt that more effective and regular consultation was needed at every stage of the policy making process.
The delegation observed that participation in decision-making is becoming more accessible and innovative. They cite the examples of parliamentary Select Committees publishing their reports using British Sign Language and audio description, as well as the government’s Innovation in Democracy programme.
The report highlights the government’s commitment cited in the Civil Society Strategy to work with CSOs and regulators to give civil society the confidence to speak out. It recommends that the government should focus on the implementation of the Civil Society Strategy and involve the NGO sector in the monitoring and evaluation process.
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3. UK charity law is historically complex, and CSOs face several bureaucratic and regulatory obstacles
The report argues that the legal framework regulating civil society is a “living document”, meaning it has become more technical and complicated over the years. This has resulted in the placement of bureaucratic obstacles for all NGOs, but especially small and medium sized ones. The report recommends that the government simplify administrative procedures under the legal framework to reinforce the campaigning capacity of smaller NGOs.
The report highlights all the different laws and regulations that ensure charities are non-political, as well as the rise in use of anti-advocacy clauses being deployed by government within grant agreements and contracts.
It goes on to discuss the Lobbying Act and the subsequent Hodgson Review, reporting how the sector has asked for it to be reviewed because of its disproportionately negative impact. During discussions with the delegation, the government maintained that the Lobbying Act did not restrict “fundamental rights” of CSOs.
The report recommends that the Lobbying Act should be revised, that the regulated period be reduced to four months and that there should be a clearer definition of regulated activities.
4. There must be a balance between government regulation and respecting civil society’s democratic right to speak out
There is recognition of a changing narrative about civil society, and a suggestion that the Lobbying Act is a symptom of this. It is usefully noted that a balance needs to be maintained between ensuring civil society is regulated to enable accountability and trust, and the “fundamental rights inherent in the democratic role” civil society organisations also need to play.
The Conference for INGOs believes that this balance between regulation and freedom to exercise rights in the UK is wrong:
The implementation of restrictive measures that impact the entire sector without sufficient evidence to back them up can be considered as unbalanced. Isolated cases of abuse should be the subject of specific treatment and respect the principle of proportionality.
The report recommends that the UK government should implement and promote the Council of Europe Guidelines on civil participation in the decision-making process.