10:06, May 31 252 0 theguardian.com

2017-05-31 10:06:02
Charities 'scared to speak out' during election campaign

A charity leader has said voluntary organisations are too frightened to speak out about key policies during the election campaign and called on politicians to urgently “reset the negative environment” facing her sector.

Vicky Browning, who heads up Acevo representing over 1,000 charity chief executives, revealed that many of her members had reported being “too nervous, too anxious and too scared about the repercussions” to enter the political debate.

She spoke of a chilling effect driven not just by 2014 lobbying legislation, sometimes referred to as the gagging law, but also an ominous culture in which charities fear being “slapped down” for speaking out.

“Charities are telling us they feel constrained, that they’ve been silenced. They are being very cautious,” Browning told the Guardian.

She said charities were not allowed to be partisan, but the Lobbying Act had also seriously limited what they could say on party policy in the 12 months up to a general election. There was particular confusion after it was made clear that the rules would be administered retrospectively for May’s snap decision to go to the polls.

“They are concerned about being misinterpreted. The whole thing has created a chilling effect – it is safer not to say anything until 9 June,” added Browning, who leads a major umbrella organisation for charities, representing 1,200 civil society chief executives.

The comments come after charity chief executives in the social care sector told the Guardian they believed Tory social care plans would be seriously damaging for elderly and vulnerable people and could “cost lives”. However, they said they were not speaking out because they felt “muzzled” during the campaign.

Browning said the issue was particularly worrying when it came to the debate over social care because the charity sector was “on the front line”.

“They know about the dilemmas, shortfalls, and in one sense there is no one better placed to contribute. It isn’t about taking party lines; it is about exploring the dimensions of the policies. But because of the Lobbying Act and context of wider concern they are choosing not to say anything.”

She said the rules meant charities could not longer be in “change-the-world mode” but instead “steady the ship”, as she called the Lobbying Act “an ill-considered piece of legislation that direly needs reform”.

“It wasn’t aimed at charities, but our members have been caught up with unintended consequences.”

However, she said the legislation was by no means the only problem, pointing as well to a “wider ecosystem” in which charities were issued guidance on what they could and could not say during the EU referendum. Browning said the Charity Commission had taken a “harsh stance” on the issue.

“A lot of what charities do is small P political – social, the environment, social justice, homelessness,” she added. “You could as a charity talk about the importance of a costed solution for social care – but if Tories don’t have that then you fall foul of charity law. This has built up into a real challenge for charities who are nervous.”

Browning said colleagues had put forward the analogy of driving behind someone and flashing them to alert them to a problem. “It is as if they then report you for road rage.”

She and her colleagues are particularly worried about the snap election and the rules being administered retrospectively. She said the sector had been assuming – because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act – that the next major election would be in 2020.

Charities can register as non-party campaigning groups with the Electoral Commission but Browning said that was a complicated process that many were choosing to avoid.

One charity chief executive in the care sector told the Guardian they were particularly worried about a means test for the winter fuel allowance, arguing that the complexity of such a system would stop the most vulnerable from accessing support and as a result, people would die. They said the Tories should, instead, remove the benefit through the tax system.

They also warned about new rules to be introduced, if May’s party wins the election, for a person’s family property to be included in the assessment for how much they would pay towards social care at home. That, they said, would simply stop people from accessing the care they desperately needed.

A Tory source said: “We are going to consult very widely on these changes in policy to avoid unintended consequences – we want to take into account views of people who use services, charities, stakeholder and so on and that will happen after the election period.”

The Electoral Commission stressed that charities could register during an election. Non-party campaigners are vital to a healthy democracy and we encourage their active participation during campaign periods; however, where a significant amount of money is being spent on campaigning for elections it is right that voters can see who is spending that money and what they are campaigning for,” a spokeswoman said.

“We always seek to apply the regulatory framework in a proportionate way. Whilst we believe that the rules are broadly workable, we recognise that they could be improved and made a number of recommendations in our response to a review of third party campaign regulation led by Lord Hodgson in 2015.”

Steve Clapperton, campaigns managing at the Charities Aid Foundation, said he was deeply concerned that some charities had felt unable to speak out. “CAF has consistently warned that the Lobbying Act may deter charities from fulfilling their important role in our democracy.

“Concern is building among charities and politicians – including some MPs who initially supported the act – who have noted the absence of charities in policy debates where they would normally represent expert views on behalf of their often marginalised beneficiaries.”

He said it was legitimate for charities to raise concerns about policy, adding: “After the election all parties need to come together to acknowledge the damaging impact of the Lobbying Act, and commit to repealing it.”