UNITED KINGDOM: the civil society strategy – what it says about campaigning

(CNVO) When it comes to advocacy and campaigning, it’s fair to say the last few years have sometimes seen a strained relationship between government and charities. We’ve seen the Lobbying Act and the robust discussions over the anti-advocacy clause, combined with regular criticism that charities are being too political and should ‘stick to their knitting’. This has sometimes left charity campaigners feeling the importance of their work is undervalued.

Which makes the very positive tone of the civil society strategy towards campaigning feel like a genuine change in approach from the government towards the important work we do to influence policy. But as all good campaigners know, the devil is in the detail, so is this positive approach matched by the reality?

Renewing the Compact

In terms of substantive changes, the government has committed to renewing the principles of the Compact, the agreement between government and the sector which sets out how the relationship between charities and government should operate.

The Compact is important for campaigners because it allows charities to speak out, even when it is uncomfortable for government, and even when they are in receipt of government funding. Renewing the Compact should give charities more confidence about their right to campaign, something which we know many charities have been nervous about in recent years.

Of course, for the Compact to work it has to clearly set out a relationship that will allow charities the space to be critical of government where they feel it is warranted, and crucially it will need to be followed. But even in seeking to renew the principles and setting out a positive vision of the role of charity campaigning, the government is sending a clear signal that they want a more positive relationship between the government and campaigning charities.

Effective engagement in policy

The government has also committed to convening a cross-government group to work with civil society to establish principles of effective engagement in the policy-making process, with a particular focus on ensuring young people can contribute.

We often talk about the important role that charities play in policy-making. The direct expertise that charities have on some of the most difficult issues facing the country makes our sector ideally placed to help the government find positive, tangible solutions. It’s important to remember that even as ministers have been critical of the role of charity campaigning, and government policy towards charity campaigning has been more restrictive, many charities have continued to have significant influence on government policy in the last few years.

But taking a more positive approach will surely be welcome for those who have perhaps felt a bit sidelined. Establishing principles of good practice around engagement should give a broader range of charities the confidence that their contribution to the policy-making process will be listened to. Again, we will have to see how this develops, but the intent behind this initiative is promising.

Lobbying Act

Probably the biggest running battle on campaigning has been the role of part 2 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act (more commonly known as the Lobbying Act), which covers the activity of non-party campaigners during election campaigns. We think the Act is flawed, but recognise that most charities are still able to campaign normally under these rules. However, it’s clear that this law has caused confusion among campaigners and in some cases has caused charities to be more cautious and risk-averse about their campaigns than they may need to be.

So while it is disappointing that the government is again refusing to amend the Act to remove the most challenging aspects and give more space for charities to campaign during elections, we do think there are things that can be done without going down the legislative route. Indeed, alongside others we have already been talking to the Electoral Commission about what could be done to give charities more confidence to campaign, so the government’s commitment to explore this with the Electoral Commission and the Charity Commission is welcome.

However, while the law remains flawed, there are likely to still be questions about what we can and can’t do, that could be more sensibly addressed through adopting the recommendations made by Lord Hodgson’s review.

Where does this leave charity campaigners?

While there isn’t much concrete change announced in relation to campaigning, there is a very welcome change in tone, with the government making a positive case for the role of charity advocacy. As a case study for the strategy Home Office minister Victoria Atkins MP talks about the role of charity lobbying describes how her department works with charities to ‘ensure that the right policies are in place to protect the most marginalised in societ’ – a reminder that even as there have been challenges over the role of campaigning, charities are still making a difference to government policy.

Warm words may not be enough on their own to thaw what some have described as a ‘chilling effect’ on charity campaigning, but this change in tone seems to signal a notable change in approach from the government when it comes to the right to campaign. We will all benefit from a renewed and stronger relationship between government and charities.


Read more about the Lobbying act: 6 ways the Lobbying Act restricts campaigning and undermines democracy