It’s not the minister who counts

01 Oct 2014 Voices

Writing for Charity Finance magazine, which went to press before Brooks Newmark resigned as minister for civil society, Andrew Hind considers the fallout from Newmark's comment that charities "should stick to their knitting". 

Credit: Barbarain

Writing for Charity Finance magazine, which went to press before Brooks Newmark resigned as minister for civil society, Andrew Hind considers the fallout from Newmark's comment that charities "should stick to their knitting". 

The biggest story in the sector by a country mile over the last month concerned the ill-fated remarks by the new minister for civil society, Brooks Newmark, who said that charities should “stick to their knitting” and stay out of the “realm of politics”.

The minister’s comments were first reported by my colleague Jenna Pudelek in Civil Society News. Within hours most national newspapers had picked up the story, and social media networks were ablaze with vociferous protests from all corners of the sector.

As an example of naivety and political inexperience (with a small ‘p’), Newmark’s utterances take some beating. Whatever he thinks about charities campaigning, it was an idiotic thing to say in his first public ministerial appearance. His clarification the next day that he was referring to “party politics” went almost unnoticed – the damage had already been done.

Interestingly, the sector’s most prominent attack dog decided not to bark on this occasion.

In recent weeks, Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, had been forceful in demanding that the Electoral Commission sort out its guidance on the Lobbying Act (which he referred to as “a regrettable mess”) and had accused MPs of attempting to curtail charities’ right to free speech following what he saw as “concerted attacks” on the Trussell Trust and Oxfam.

But after a meeting with Newmark he wrote a supportive blog, saying: “My judgement is that we have an ally in our new minister. The twittersphere can calm down.”

Whatever you think of Sir Stephen, he can never be accused of lacking political savvy. Clearly his calculation is that a relationship needs first to be built with Brooks Newmark, in order that maximum leverage can be exerted when a really significant disagreement occurs at some point in the not-too-distant future.

As on countless previous occasions, the Acevo leader is demonstrating greater expertise in the dark arts of political manoeuvring than most professional parliamentarians – he is certainly light years ahead of the sector’s new minister.

And perhaps Sir Stephen is right – maybe it doesn’t actually matter very much what the minister for civil society thinks.

During Nick Hurd’s four years in office, I believe he genuinely sought to help build a stronger sector, but too many of his government colleagues wilfully ignored his message – witness the Lobbying Act, changes to judicial review and the cap on tax relief for charitable donations (subsequently aborted).

Future landscape for campaigning

The really worrying thing about the future landscape for charity campaigning is not what Brooks Newmark thinks about it. It is the fact that only 42 per cent of Conservative MPs think it is acceptable for charities to challenge government policy, according to a recent poll by nfpSynergy.

For many of his parliamentary colleagues, Newmark’s “stick to their knitting” comment will have gone down very well.

In such a febrile environment, the Charity Commission is inevitably going to come under pressure to ‘row back’ on its guidance on Campaigning and Political Activity by Charities (CC9), which currently asserts that “the experience of charities means that they should have a strong and assertive voice”.

For those who worry about whether the Commission’s independence has been compromised in recent times, the willingness of the regulator to stand up for CC 9 is about to become the perfect test case.

 

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