A clear message on campaigning

Last month, charities’ right to speak out was once again in the spotlight. An investigation by the Times uncovered how suppliers working under contract to deliver services to the Department for Work and Pensions have been required to sign contracts including ‘adverse publicity’ clauses. This includes charities working with Universal Credit claimants.

The Times suggested these clauses prevent those charities from speaking out about the experiences of the people they work with, and from providing their insight and expertise to improve policy-making.

In response I wrote to both the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the prime minister asking for clarity on the purpose of these clauses, and highlighting the very serious implications if charities feel that their expertise and insight cannot be shared.

I am absolutely clear: any policy which mutes what the government might hear will create problems in the long term. If we want a healthy democracy and a healthy nation, we should encourage transparency and openness, along with reasoned discussion and debate informed by those at the front line of policy implementation and service delivery.

I have now received responses from the Secretary of State and the prime minister. Both letters are clear: it is not the intention of these clauses to stop providers or affiliates from fairly criticising government departments or government policy.

Image of letter from the prime minister to Sir Stuart EtheringtonImage of letter from Esther McVey MP to Sir Stuart Etherington

(Click on the images to view PDFs of the letters, or read the full text on the website)

The prime minister says the government recognises the importance of the voice of charities, and that she believes it is vital that the sector’s independence and freedom of speech are protected.

She says the purpose of the clauses in question is to allow the government to respond if a provider brings them into disrepute, for example through breaking employment law or acting in a dangerous or unethical manner.

I hope this will give charities confidence that their right to campaign and their role in informing the development of public policy are recognised and respected.

In particular, I want charities to know that, even when under contract:

  • they are not prevented from speaking out, and this includes fairly criticising the department or programme they are delivering
  • they can campaign for the advancement of their particular charitable cause, provided they do so in accordance with the Charity Commission’s guidance on campaigning and with their own money.

The bigger picture

My concern is that the problem of perception now exceeds any problem created by the clauses themselves, however ambiguously drafted they might be.

The initial reaction to the clauses is understandable: when it comes to advocacy and campaigning, it’s fair to say that at times our relationship with government has been strained. Many would say it started with the changes to the non-party campaigning rules introduced by the Lobbying Act, others would say that this goes back much further. The sense that our right to campaign is not respected or recognised by government has certainly taken hold.

The mood is changing, for the better

But recently we have been getting a more positive and encouraging message from government. On various occasions it has made a point about recognising and encouraging our right to campaign.

First, I was greatly encouraged by the very positive tone of the civil society strategy towards campaigning. This felt like a genuine change in approach from the government towards the important work we do to influence policy.

The Cabinet Office has recently published codes of conduct for suppliers and grant recipients. Both expressly encourage suppliers and grant recipients to speak out, without fear of consequences, if they have concerns about the project or service.

And now we have these clear statements from the prime minister and the secretary of state. They recognise the sector’s independence and freedom of speech, and how important it is to protect these, so charities continue to provide a voice for the people and causes they serve.

Creating the right environment for campaigning

We will not, of course, be complacent in this area. NCVO has always defended our right to campaign. Campaigning is such a huge part of our identity as a sector, so we will continue to be vigilant and to push for further changes that will ensure charities are free to speak truth to power.

There is much to do: implementing the Hodgson reforms, recommitting to the principles set out in the Compact, improving the Electoral Commission’s guidance in non-party campaigning rules, and taking forward the plans for a cross-government group on effective involvement in the policy-making process. All of this would all go some way to further reassure charities that the government respects their right to campaign.

We also look forward to working with the government to consider other ways in which future contracts and grant agreement can be clarified. So once again the message to charities is unambiguous: our role in society and public debate is respected and encouraged, even when we say things that are uncomfortable to hear.

Given the scale of the challenges we face at present, and are likely to face in future, we must continue speaking truth to power without hindrance.

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

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