Regulator ‘captured’ by anti-campaigning government agenda, says charity CEO

24 Jan 2023 News

Sonya Sceats, CEO of Freedom from Torture

Freedom from Torture

The leader of a human rights charity recently criticised by the Home Office has accused the Charity Commission of following a “government agenda that wants to see charities delivering services and keeping our mouths shut”.

Speaking to Civil Society News last week, Sonia Sceats said she hoped to see a change in approach from the Commission to recognise “the important role” charities play in “holding power to account for injustice”.

Chief executive Sceats told Civil Society News that campaigning had become “a much bigger part” of her charity Freedom From Torture’s activities in recent years, with the charity’s primary role to offer rehabilitation support to victims of torture.

The Commission said it was “an independent regulator [...] beholden only to the law” and that charities could campaign “in a way that furthers their purposes”.

Sceats’ comments came days after Freedom From Torture refused to remove a video from social media of home secretary Suella Braverman after her department asked it to do so.

In the video, Freedom From Torture supporter and holocaust survivor Joan Salter confronted Braverman at a public meeting over her use of words such as an “invasion” to describe immigrants arriving in the UK.

Braverman was shown saying in her response: “I won’t apologise for the language I’ve used to demonstrate the scale of the problem”.

The Home Office said the edited video “misrepresents the interaction”, which the charity denied and therefore refused to delete it.

Sceats: Regulator should recognise importance of charities to free society

Asked whether the Commission had changed its approach to charities’ campaigning activities in recent years, Sceats said she had been “alarmed” by some of the changes.

“We've definitely seen, over recent years, the Charity Commission, captured I think, by interests that are very aligned with a government agenda that wants to see charities delivering services and keeping our mouths shut about the social injustices that we see through that service provision,” she said.

“And so we, like many in the third sector, have been very alarmed by some of the developments.”

But Sceats said she hoped the regulator might be becoming more supportive of charities’ campaigning activities after recent changes in leadership. Orlando Fraser was appointed Commission chair at the start of last year.

“We hold hope that there is going to be a readjustment and an effort on the part of the Commission to recognise the very important role in a free society that charities play in ensuring that as a country we comply with the rule of law and that we are holding power to account for injustice. It's such an important part of civil society,” she said.

“And, of course, we know this very, very well at Freedom From Torture, because we are working with people who have been tortured in other parts of the world precisely for doing that important work of speaking truth to power and standing up for the rights of women and LGBT people and trade union activists etc.

“So for us, the slippery slope here is very, very real. And this is another one of the reasons why Freedom From Torture has moved over the last few years to be part of the efforts to fight creeping authoritarianism in Britain.”

A Charity Commission spokeswoman said: “As an independent regulator, we are beholden only to the law. Our guidance on campaigning and political activity in charities is informed solely by charity law. Charities are free to campaign and engage in political activity, but they must do so only in a way that furthers their purposes.”

The government also confirmed that that the Commission was “not subject to ministerial direction or control”.

Donors support campaigning work increase

Freedom From Torture, renamed from the Medical Foundation in 2011, split from Amnesty International in the 1980s, so campaigning has always been “a part of [its] DNA”.

“But in recent years, campaigning has become a much bigger part of the way in which we deliver the mission of our charity,” said Sceats.

“And the reason for that is that we started to become very concerned some years ago, that public support for the absolute torture ban and for the rights of survivors as refugees was beginning to ebb away.”

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation honoured the charity after its ‘stop torture impunity’ campaign in 2021 persuaded the government to cease its efforts to protect British soldiers from prosecution for war crimes after five years.

Sceats said the charity’s donors, which provide the vast majority of the charity’s more than £10m annual income, have supported its recent shift to a campaigning focus.

She said “there was some reticence” from long-term donors who wanted their money to go directly towards service provision but that “people have understood” the need for campaigning activity “as the anti-refugee politics of this government have sharpened”.

“For the most part, our community of donors has really warmly embraced this, especially because they feel so enraged about what is a growing disconnect between their values, and the values that this government in relation to these issues is expressing through its policy agenda,” she said.

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