Labour respects charities’ right to campaign, says new shadow charities minister

09 Oct 2023 News

Lisa Frith, People First, Duncan Shrubsole, director of policy, communications and research at Lloyds Bank Foundation, Sarah Vibert, CEO of NCVO, Andrew Harrop, general secretary of Fabian Society and Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol

Charities’ ability to “speak truth to power is vital” despite how charity campaigning will not always be comfortable for those in government, the recently appointed shadow minister for civil society has said. 

Lilian Greenwood was speaking at a fringe event at the Labour Party conference alongside panellists from across civil society. 

“We might not always like what you say, but we absolutely respect your right to say it,” she said. 

Sarah Vibert, chief executive of NCVO, said at the event she was “absolutely horrified at the anti-charity rhetoric that’s coming from senior Conservatives in relation to campaigning”. 

She went on to say: “Charities need to know that a Labour government has their back when it comes to speaking truth to power. We’re partners with the state, but we are not the state.”

Vibert’s comments came after home secretary Suella Braverman told the Conservative Party conference last week: “Each time I have gone to parliament to improve the law on immigration, Labour has tried to block us. Always aided by their allies in the third sector.”

Earlier this year, Braverman said some charities and civil society groups are comprised of “politically motivated activists masquerading as humanitarians”.

Also at the Conservative Party conference last week, a former Charity Commission chair said charities should stay out of “contentious debates”.

Charities’ independence is vital, says shadow charities minister

Greenwood has been in the role for four weeks and replaced Barbara Keeley in Labour's cabinet reshuffle.

She opened the fringe event by saying she “couldn’t have asked for a warmer welcome” from the sector and praised the “tremendous role” that charities are playing in their communities every day. 

On charity campaigning, Greenwood said: “You see the need for change and you articulate it to those in power, so often using your voice to amplify the voices of those who are most marginalised and least likely to be heard. 

“And I know that that role as campaigners isn't always going to be comfortable for those in government. But your independence and your ability to speak truth to power are vital. 

“We might not always like what you say, but we absolutely respect your right to say it and share your perspective and your expectations and will listen to that.”

Greenwood also said a Labour government needs an “equally strong” relationship with civil society as it does with private businesses. 

“When public, private and charitable and voluntary sector are working together on our shared interests and goals, we’ll surely be able to achieve more.”

Labour wants charities to be ‘key partners’ in government

Greenwood said she wants charities to be “key partners” in the delivery of Labour’s five mission statements if it gets into power at the next general election.

“I want [charities] to feel valued and receptive and never taken for granted. I want to build on the strong heritage of Labour and civil society working together.

“I'm really excited by the prospect of a Labour government working with charities as partners and delivering a fairer, more equal, more inclusive Britain and I hope you are too.”

‘We will hold politicians’ feet to the fire without fear or favour’

Duncan Shrubsole, director of policy, communications and research at Lloyds Bank Foundation was also speaking at the event. He said that charities have often led and created a space for politicians. 

“To influence in government has always been key [to charities] – when some people tell charities to ‘stick to their knitting’ –  that's our knitting. 

“But it is important to note that because of that we will also be impartial. We will hold politicians’ feet to the fire without fear or favour.”

Shrubsole spoke out about the criticism refugee charities have received for campaigning.

He said: “They aren't being political – they’re explicitly defending their charitable purpose. They shouldn’t be attacked by the media and particularly by her majesty’s home secretary for doing so.”

Shrubsole said the sector has seen attempts to get charities investigated by the Charity Commission “precisely for doing their job”.

He suggested if refugee charities “did not stand up in the face of the biggest challenge and change ever to policy and legislation towards refugees, then they should be reported to the Charity Commission for not campaigning hard enough”.

At a different fringe event yesterday, Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said some Conservatives “think charities should not campaign”. 

“The lesson for Labour is that the sector can be a real critical friend,” he said, as charities have often felt as though they have been “put on the naughty step” for campaigning. 

NCVO: ‘We are not the state’

Vibert said that at the moment charities are “acting as the welfare state” and have become “sticking plasters where government has stepped back over decades of austerity”. 

“A pre-Beveridge, Victorian view of charities is not what we at NCVO believe in,” she said.

“Voluntary organisations are often the glue that holds communities together. So yes, I want to see fewer food banks, but I also want to see more Scout groups more park runs and more wonderful things like the Big Help Out.”

Vibert went on to say that NCVO wants to work with Labour and co-create a shared vision on how civil society and the state can collectively deliver community. 

Shrubsole echoed Vibert’s concerns. He said charities are “supposed to be filling gaps – not wide gaping chasms and too often we’re trying to do what government should be doing”.

Earlier on in the discussion, Shrubsole said: “We used to be the icing on the cake, too often we’re asked to be the cake.”

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