Charities now face a "barrage of attacks on their freedom to defend the most vulnerable" which have grown more serious in each of the last four years, the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector has said in its final report today.
In the report, An independent mission: The voluntary sector in 2015, the Panel says it is particularly concerned about the sector's independence of voice, which has come under attack from government ministers and MPs.
The Panel is an independent group of individuals who have held leading roles within the sector. It was formed in June 2011.
It has called for a “new settlement” between government and the charity sector, including a "Compact with teeth".
The Compact was an agreement signed in 1998 between government and the sector which enforced three-year funding, sensible consultation with the sector, and the right for charities to campaign.
While government still holds that the Compact applies, it has been referenced less and less frequently in recent years.
The Panel says that recent years have seen a trend for charities to face a “barrage of attacks on their freedom to defend the most vulnerable people in society”. It is calling for more formal mechanisms for dialogue between the government and charity sector at national and local levels, and for the government to reverse restrictions such as “gagging clauses” and repeal the Lobbying Act.
Letter to ministers
Sir Roger Singleton, chair of the Panel, has written to both the minister for civil society, Rob Wilson, and the shadow minister, Lisa Nandy, ahead of the release of the report, outlining practical steps that can be taken by the next government to reclaim the sector’s independence.
The letter reads: “Over the last four years, the Panel has chartered worrying and growing threats to the independence of the sector. I am sure you will agree that our society needs a thriving and independent voluntary sector.
“But we believe that, unless there is action now, the future of an independent voluntary sector is at serious risk.”
The report highlights as one of its main concerns the “loss of the sector’s distinctive identity and respect for independence”. It says this has continued to get worse, referencing concerns over the two most recent civil society ministers – Brooks Newmark and Rob Wilson – including the “use of volunteering as a workfare tool”.
Another major concern of the Panel is “threats to independence of voice”. This, it says, has worsened every year since the Panel has been monitoring independence. It references the Lobbying Act and its “chilling effect”, as well as specific examples of where the sector’s independence has been threatened which were raised in front of the panel.
The report refers to when Chris Mould, the chair of the Trussell trust, told the panel that it had been criticised by ministers and even threatened behind the scenes for raising policy issues in relation to foodbanks, and when Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, spoke of examples of when charities had been told that if they challenged tender specifications they would not be able to bid again, and were faced with “gagging clauses”.
The Panel is also calling on the next government to “demonstrate that the Charity Commission is genuinely politically independent”. This follows concerns raised over the Commission’s “unambiguous commitment to upholding the ability of charities to campaign”.
It referenced the recent report by the Charity Commission on the Oxfam Perfect Storm tweet, of which Conservative MP Conor Burns complained to the Commission over it being party political. The Panel has suggested that the Commission’s judgement on this has “only muddied the waters”, and expressed concerns over signs that the Commission is considering tightening up its existing guidance on campaigning.
The Panel has made several recommendations, including removing constraints on independence of voice by repealing the Lobbying Act, reversing changes to judicial review and removing gagging clauses. It also recommends “more formal mechanisms for dialogue and collaboration between government and the voluntary sector”, at a national and local level, and a “Compact with teeth”.
It also recommends targeted financial support to the voluntary sector and a reform of commissioning and procurement, as well as the assurance that the Charity Commission is “politically independent with a clear role to protect the independence of the sector, including its right to campaign”