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February 24, 2016

To criticise is a basic right

Chakrabarti’s visit to Scotland coincided with an astonishing development in the UK Government’s troubled relationship with the charity sector. A clause is to be inserted into funding agreements preventing charities from voicing criticism of Government policy. Given the campaigning role of so many charities, this either represents a sinister attempt to stifle dissent or it demonstrates a worrying lack of understanding of the sector. Given the Cabinet Office’s recent suggestion that charities should ‘stick to their knitting’ it may well be the latter. Nonetheless, the Scottish Government’s unequivocal response has been widely welcomed.


Stephen Naysmith, The Herald

A “GAGGING” clause designed to muzzle charities who speak out about controversial policies will not be enforced by the Scottish Government.

The controversial law designed to prevent state-funded charities from criticising contentious government policies such as welfare reform was significantly beefed up by UK ministers at the weekend.

They ordered that, from May, a clause must be written into all government funding deals with charities ensuring that the money is not to be used to criticise politicians or attempt to change policies.

Charities that do not comply risk further payments being stopped and any funding already received could be clawed back.

Charities say the move will have a chilling effect on the ability of many to campaign against flawed government action.

Now the Scottish Government said they would continue to invite constructive criticism of its own policies.

But the robust stance from Holyrood means charities could end up using Scottish Government money to campaign against UK Government policy.

Social Justice Secretary Alex Neil said the Scottish Government would not add the clause to any grant offer letters and he is to write to the UK Government objecting to the rule.

 “In Scotland we recognise third sector and equalities organisations play an important role providing a voice on public policy for communities and we have no intention of adding this clause to our grant offer letters,” he said. “This planned change could make it difficult for some third sector organisation to highlight the issues that are affecting some of the most vulnerable people in our society. We have appropriate and well-designed controls in place to ensure that public money is spent for approved purposes only.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon reinforced the position at the charity conference The Gathering in Glasgow yesterday [Weds], saying that she saw charities as a “critical friend”.

However she said Holyrood was powerless to prevent Scottish-based charities funded by Westminster from being affected by the anti-lobbying clause.

The UK Government has argued that it is wrong for taxpayers’ money to be given to pressure groups to fund lobbying rather than good causes or public services.

However critics argue the new law is essentially a ‘gagging’ clause designed to appease Conservative MPs who are angry at relentless criticism from some charities which speak out over unpopular polices, particularly in areas such as welfare reform and child poverty.

John Downie, director of Public Affairs for the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), said providing services and campaigning on related issues often go hand in hand for charities

“This is a deliberate political move, and a continuation of the UK Government’s war on charities that has been running for the last 18 months,” he said.

“SCVO does not accept any distinction between campaigning or service organisations. Service delivery provides essential insights into the issues faced by the most vulnerable people in society. It is essential that this is used directly to inform public policy debate.

“We fundamentally reject the notion that government funds should not be used to resource lobbying, campaigning or informing public policy, voluntary organisations not only have a right to campaign and lobby government but a duty to do so.”

Enable, one of Scotland’s leading learning disability charities, said that had the rules been in place last year, they would have prevented it running the #StoptheBus campaign which won the Campaign of the Year at the Herald Society Awards.

Jan Savage, executive director of campaigns at Enable said: “Our #StoptheBus campaign achieved a significant change for people who have learning disabilities by resolving a policy issue that had seen people with learning disabilities lose their access to a bus pass.

“It was a real victory for people who have learning disabilities, who spoke up and campaigned on an issue that matters to them and is a perfect example of what third sector organisations like ENABLE Scotland can do to improve the lives of others through campaigning.”

Unrestricted charitable funds allow Enable to help give people with learning disabilities a voice, Ms Savage said: “We have also campaigned with our members on issues like education for all and the closure of long stay institutions.”

The UK Government argues it is not gagging charities and they will be free to engage in lobbying but should not fund this sort of activity from government grants.