Charities, campaigning and ‘sock-puppetry’: why the sector has a right to speak out

On Tuesday I spoke at a fringe event called ‘Sock puppets: Should the state be funding pressure groups?’ run by the Institute of Economic Affairs. My colleague Karl Wilding recently wrote a blog post in defence of charity campaigning, in which he talks about the ‘why and how’ of charity campaigning – here, I would like to address some of the issues which arise when charities which campaign receive government funding.

Campaigning is an important part of democracy

One of the fundamental principles of a thriving and healthy democracy is that individuals and organisations can speak out about the issues they care about. Charities in particular have a long-established role in educating and informing the public, and crucially, holding the state to account. And it’s the sign of a mature democracy that we allow dissent and make sure we have wide-ranging and representative public debate.

Of course, that means that charities also need to be accountable, and it is right that they are subject to scrutiny. The Charity Commission regulate in this area, and have shown that they are prepared to act if they feel charities do cross the line; charity campaigning is even more heavily regulated during election periods, under the Lobbying Act.

Charities not only have the right to campaign, they are often also best-placed to provide important insights which can inform and improve policy-making. Organisations working with particular groups naturally develop expertise in their sector, including how to make service delivery more effective and how to provide greater value for money for the taxpayer.

For example, the charity Combat Stress receives government funding for a helpline to provide mental health support to veterans. To suggest that heavy-handed regulation is needed to prevent them using the insights they pick up to influence government doesn’t help anyone. There is significant public support for the role of charities in the development of public policy, whether they hold contracts from government or not.

The role of charities in influencing public policy is therefore crucial, ensuring that we increase the quality and breadth of debate on healthcare, the environment, veterans’ welfare and other issues close to the public’s heart.

This is not a widespread problem

The ‘anti-lobbying, anti-sock puppets’ clause adopted by Eric Pickles for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) grant agreements advocated stopping grants to charities for lobbying purposes. In fact, these sorts of grants have always been rare, and have been reduced even further in recent years.

Small and medium sized organisations, which were hardest hit by cuts to statutory funding, saw a fall in their income from government sources of 38% between 2007/8 and 2012/13.

At best the clause is unnecessary red tape, and at worst it would lead to a chilling effect among charities as they feel they are not allowed to speak on behalf of their beneficiaries. We oppose the Pickles clause, and in particular the message it sends to charities about their ability to speak out. This is completely wrong headed and we are pushing to ensure this is not extended to any other departments.

Campaigning can be the best use of limited resources

I put several arguments to the panel on Tuesday (something of a lions’ den – it included Guido Fawkes blogger Paul Staines, Daniel Hannan MEP and others) but in fact I felt there is one very simple and straightforward argument to make.

The reality is that charities have both a right and a duty to learn from the experiences of their beneficiaries and to press government into action – regardless of their funding arrangements.

Indeed, campaigning is where many charities can make a bigger impact with limited resources than they would through service delivery alone. Often this will save taxpayers’ money in the long term, as issues are addressed at their roots. After all, is it better to care for victims of crime in the aftermath of an event, or help to prevent crimes in the first place?

It is good to help care for cancer patients, but isn’t it better to push for more effective treatment, awareness of symptoms, and support for diagnosis? Ultimately, I believe the audience understood that merely servicing the problem costs a lot more than solving it.

Let’s not limit charities to just picking up the pieces, let’s all champion and support their campaigning role so that they can make a bigger difference.


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Stuart Etherington Sir Stuart Etherington was chief executive of NCVO from 1994 to 2019.

10 Responses to Charities, campaigning and ‘sock-puppetry’: why the sector has a right to speak out

  1. Mark Bick says:

    I strongly agree. These moves to try and stop charities campaigning on behalf of their beneficiaries, whether directly or indirectly through fear are a significant threat to our democracy. They need to be strongly resisted. They designed to protect Governments from criticism are not in the public interest.

  2. I completely agree. Indeed, I think you were correct when you said that charities have both a right and a duty. The latter responsibility is one that many charities have forgotten. It’s important as charities that we keep in the front of our minds the needs of our client-group. The vested interest of the charity often gets in the way, and this can stifle the genuine needs of individuals and the root causes of problems. It’s not about sticking plasters on things – it’s about healing the wound. We should all be trying to do ourselves out of job, so that charities are not needed (that’s unlikely, but it should be the aim).

  3. Ian Smith says:

    I agree with all the above, nobody is speaking out on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged, and some charities seem or appear to be more interested in their own survival than the people they are there to help. But I think we need to be more cute about it and learn from others about how to influence the debate. Owen Jones’ book The Establishment gives a fascinating (if somewhat repetitive) account of how some “others” go about it, which I think we can learn from.

  4. Malcolm Bloor says:

    Charitable organisations are very much in touch with problems facing the most deprived areas,communities,and individuals.Being at “the sharp end” we are are to see the effects which government policies impact on society.Therfore, in most instances these mostly affected do not have the opportunity or voice strong enough to register a impact.It is therefore up to Charitable organistions to continue to press these concerns by means of lobbying at local and national levels.

  5. Campaigning in my view is a democratic right without it there would be little fairness in our society.

    The freedom of the Charity sector to raise money in is being severely squeezed in a way that will seriously detract from the massive good that is is created.

    We at Ella totally support the views expressed by Stuart.

  6. john richardson says:

    I think Stuart was right to go to the conference and it sounds as though he made effective and persuasive arguments.

    I would be good though if NCVO could work in partnership with organisations like the Small Charities Coalition so it isn’t just the big super charities that have a voice on sector issues

  7. Charities have a fundamental responsibility to shine a light on issues that would otherwise go unnoticed. Like previous commentators have stated, charities are also often the first to see problems created by policy and are therefore best placed to highlight this with policy makers. I also believe the relationship charities have with those they serve,often the most disadvantaged and oppressed sections of community, is dependant on them being able to stand up for their rights as citizens.

  8. ed hodson says:

    Without wishing to repeat the praise described above, as charities we should have the insight and the expertise to represent the experiences of our members/users/clients better than anyone else. Moves to prevent us from doing this, putting aside party political preferences, would be an extremely defensive move from any Government of any persuasion. At Citizens Advice Coventry we believe an open pluralist society benefits all; and at what better venue to make that point than the annual conference of the governing Party.

  9. Phil Baker says:

    Successive govts have been embarrassed enough at times to wave the `charity tax breaks’ threat, and there is a rough correlation between the extent of the waving and the shrinkage in the state. However, the more recent leaning towards additional legal and regulatory constraint is invidious and reveals a hardening of the position. Charities and VCS in general also have a duty to the beneficiaries in resisting unwarranted constraints on the rightful role of calling it like it is. A nervous sector, tending to the supine for fear of losing the last few crumbs of funding, serves no one and no state well.

  10. Uday Bahadur says:

    I agree. The role of charities is very important and people should speak out more about things they care about and promote charity jobs in the UK.

    I found this post on charity jobs explaining the role of charity job in the UK and average earnings in the sector. Hope you all find it useful.