THE voice of charities is being stifled by legislation and an
intimidatory political climate, new research suggests.
The Lobbying Act makes it "almost impossible" for charities and
campaign groups to work together to speak out on "politically
contested issues", a new report from the Commission on Civil
Society and Democratic Engagement warns.
The survey, Impact of the Lobbying Act on Civil Society and
Democratic Engagement, which questioned more than 50 groups,
found that 63 per cent of those surveyed believed that compliance
with the Act would make their charitable objectives harder to
Some spoke of feeling reluctant to speak out, for fear of
falling foul of the Act, which caps spending on activities
"intended to promote or reduce the electoral prospects of a
political party or parties", and has expanded the definition of
such activities. The report suggests that this law has made it
"almost impossible for charities and campaign groups to work
together and speak out on politically contested issues as they did
Lord Harries told the BBC that he would be "very surprised if,
at the end of this election, there weren't a number of legal cases
where complaints had been brought against campaigning groups".
Both the Quakers and the Salvation Army have said that they will
formally register with the Electoral Commission to comply with the
new rules. The Church of England will not.
Reports of a "chilling effect" were echoed in another report
this week, Inquiry into the Future of Voluntary Services,
by the National Coalition for Independent Action. Its author, Dr
Mike Aiken, argues 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." He suggests that securing contracts to
provide services may "co-opt them into complicity with the
machinery of government".
The report draws on case studies. One, Fight Back, a group of
activists devoted to campaigning against public-service cuts,
reported a decline in the number of voluntary organisations willing
to get involved, and suggested that "it would have to be a very
confident voluntary organisation today who would support a
campaigning organisation . . . or, say, oppose austerity
Direct Help for Poor, a faith-based charity which has declined
to enter contracting or commissioning in order to maintain its
independence, testified that it had faced "bullying . . . on more
than one occasion . . they say: 'be careful' . . . There were
attempts to undermine people in our organisation."