The perception of the Lobbying Act is more damaging to charities' ability to campaign than the reality, says Tracey Crouch, minister for civil society.
I can’t remember a time when the charity or voluntary sector was not a part of my life. I have somehow or another been involved throughout my professional or personal journey, which is why I was delighted to be asked to take on the civil society brief.
I am relishing the opportunity to work alongside organisations and volunteers that help shape communities and transform lives across the country and using my own enthusiasm to help support the sector with the various challenges it faces.
One such challenge is the Transparency of Lobbying Act and the decision by the Government not to take forward the legislative reforms to the non-party campaigning rules proposed by Lord Hodgson. Lord Hodgson's recommendations were intended to be introduced as a package and required legislation to implement. Unfortunately there simply won't be time in the legislative calendar to consider these reforms. However I am confident we can address some of the concerns and issues in other ways.
Much has been said of a perceived “chilling effect” that the rules have had on charities and other civil society organisations, with some charities arguing that it prevents them from speaking up on behalf of their beneficiaries. It is worrying that some feel this way and I have to say as both an advocate for various charities and a recipient of information from the efforts of others, I have never fully understood this, but that perception is there and it is my job to ensure that we turn the chill to a warm breeze.
Charities play an enormously important role in our democracy. I am not just saying that as charities minister, but as a former lobbyist who believes it is important to educate and inform those of us who make decisions on policy issues. But it is also right that we have a framework to provide transparency of non-party campaigning during the run up to an election.
Charities are already barred from any party political activity but they can undertake non-partisan campaigns or activities that are linked to their charitable objectives. The Minimum Standards for Government Grants, published by the Cabinet Office in December 2016, were a step forward in providing a flexible and workable approach to ensure that appropriate campaign activity, by charities funded wholly or partly through government grants, is not unnecessarily curtailed. Campaigning in support of their charities’ cause and objectives is a longstanding and valuable role of charities.
Lord Hodgson, in his review last year, concluded that it was the perception of the legislation, rather than its direct impact, that was making charities pause. I agree. So in the absence of legislative reform the question is how we can work with charities to change the perception of the legislation and encourage charities to continue their important campaigning work.
I want to work with the sector to tackle any confusion about the rules and give them the confidence to speak out on behalf of their beneficiaries. I know that the Minister for the Constitution, Chris Skidmore, who has responsibility for the Transparency of Lobbying Act, shares this view and together we will help charities to better understand the non-party campaigning rules.
And let us not lose sight of all the other work that is going on in the sector. I was pleased to announce that Local Charities Day will take place again this year on 15 December. Local Charities Day will yet again highlight the work of small charities and their volunteers and how they are making remarkable differences in their communities. We want as many local charities involved as possible, and over the next three months we will be showcasing the work of a range of local charities from around the country. We know that many small charities can struggle to raise funds to support their important work, so in July I announced a range of free and low cost training opportunities for small charities through our small charities fundraising training programme.
But there is more work to be done, for example on helping charities engage in delivering public services, banging the drum for the sector and helping them understand the opportunities and challenges as we leave the EU, as well as supporting volunteering across all ages.
Charities are incredible. The work they do is invaluable to society and democracy and I do not want anything to stand in the way of them making an impact. To echo my previous point, let us work together to strengthen civil society and help change the lives of some of the most disadvantaged in society.