Friday, 27 June 2014

World at One and free speech

The debate on charities’ right to speak out lumbers on. It was a hot topic of conversation last night at three receptions I was at, not least the launch of the smart new Third Sector magazine which will now be published monthly.

I was pleased to be able to defend our historic right to campaign on issues of public concern on the BBC’s World at One this afternoon. One of the MPs interviewed is arguing that if charities have contracts for services we should not be allowed to speak out. This would drive a coach and horse through the governments attempts to reform public services, and would undermine good policy making and better legislation. Fundamentally, the whole argument is based on an impossible premise. Charities’ work to help the lives of the beneficiaries is inseparable from their work to speak out on their behalf.

This point was made far more eloquently in the House of Lords yesterday, in a debate on a motion moved by Baroness Scott of Needham Market noting the contribution of the voluntary and community sector. Speaking movingly about sector independence, Lord Judd said:

“I do not think that I am oversimplifying in saying—it was particularly during my time as director of Oxfam that this thought began to crystallise very clearly with me—that advocacy is not something that charities do in addition to their voluntary work; I became convinced that advocacy was an essential and inherent part of the voluntary service.”

And even better, statistics consistently show that the public are on our side too. They want us to speak out. The most revealing statistic here was from Ipsos MORI polling that Ben Page quoted at ACEVO’s Gathering of Social Leaders last month; more people thought we ought to be campaigning to change public policy (32%) than thought we currently are doing so (24%). So in fact we should be expanding our advocacy role rather than merely defending it against those who disagree with what we say.

And we shall carry on doing so. What I find surprising in all this coverage is that these anti-democratic views in fact come from a tiny minority of parliamentarians. The vast majority of MPs and Peers on all sides recognise that our advocacy role is vital to better law-making, and contributes to a vibrant democracy. Long may that last.

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