Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Reds under the bed?

Continuing a depressing recent trend, another government minister used his platform to attack charities’ advocacy and campaigning. Chris Grayling , the Justice  Secretary, writing in the Daily Mail, has warned that professional campaigners were “taking over charities” as well as dominating the BBC and Westminster to articulate a “left-wing vision which is neither affordable nor deliverable”.

His critique of campaigning charities comes as the government continues its attempt to pass lobbying legislation which will restrict our ability to campaign on critical issues. “In the charity sector, a whole range of former advisers from the last government can be found in senior roles,” Grayling said. “While charities inundate Westminster with campaign material, they also target the legal system as a way of trying to get their policies accepted.”
This speech echoes a theme in an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph today ("shining a light on the shadowy figures who control the national bully pulpit ") which also repeats the tired myth that charity campaigning is motivated by the desire to advance a ‘left-wing vision,’ led by a cabal of lefties. There is a feeling in the sector that these lines demonstrate a paranoid conspiracy theory of charity campaigning and it is a worry that this is supported by a senior Government Minister.   When you consider that Mr Grayling is also leading the charge to erode the public’s right to challenge government policies through judicial review, it becomes doubly so.

To state the obvious: charities don’t campaign, or use judicial review, in order to advance a left wing or a right wing agenda. They do it because they understand the impact of government policies on communities, on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and they have a duty to impart that knowledge to government and the public. It is an ancient and honourable tradition that charities speak truth to power. Whether campaigning against slavery in the 18th century , or against child abuse and cruelty to animals in the 19th century, or for stricter planning laws and the environment in the 20th, our voice has not just been heard but has driven real change for the better. It was charities that led campaigns against the disasters of homelessness, leading to new legislation, or against racial inequality and discrimination, leading to new equality laws. 

Campaigning is not necessarily for left wing causes as one Tory MP pointed out in the Commons about HS2. A strong democracy glories in a diversity of views and voices. It welcomes civil society, rather than attacking it. And it is a sign of a weak argument when you need to resort to personality bashing rather than addressing the logic of the argument. 
On the issue of judicial review, charities and campaigners use that to  protect beneficiaries’ interests. For charities it is part of our public benefit mission. If Ministers took off their tin-foil hats for a minute and listened to what the sector is saying, they might realise that party politics is the last thing on our mind. Charities have to live in the real world, where government policies have real consequences on people’s lives.

If some people in the sector have prior links to Labour - alongside all those with links to the Conservatives, Lib Dems, Greens and other - so what? Does Mr Grayling refuse to listen to former Communist Party member Eric Pickles? Surely what matters is the expertise charities bring to the policy-making process, not the political affiliations or personalities of individual staff. Campaigning charities cover every inch of the political spectrum, taking different sides of the argument on issues from public spending to planning and community protection, green energy to gay marriage or abortion. Precisely which ones should be silenced?
And as for the jibe about ‘professional’ campaigning- what exactly is the problem with professionalism? Should charities not strive to be as effective as they possibly can, and to attract staff that can deliver results? It’s a strange state of affairs when professionalism comes under attack from the former Minister for Employment!

There is a sad increase in the numbers of MPs attacking charity campaigning. This is a worrying trend. Good law needs the experience that civil society brings to debate. If an argument is sound then the personality of the proponent should not matter. Playing the person not the argument is a poor way to develop national policy. Not listening to people because you object to the colour of their hat is the behaviour of despotic regimes, not mature democracies. 

I thought it was worth repeating some of the comments that have been made on the article from the Daily Mail.

“The people in a democracy should be able to challenge the State on whether what the State is doing is lawful - that is democracy !”
- afarce , London UK, 08/9/2013 09:38

“This is deeply worrying. Any Minister proposing to limit the ability of the citizen to challenge the State, especially on ideological grounds, should be treated with utter contempt. Grayling's decimation of the Justice system, placing the Executive in an extraordinarily powerful position, should be of grave concern to all; regardless of whether you are on the left or the right of politics.”
- RuleofLaw , Scotland, United Kingdom, 07/9/2013 22:28

“Any minister who would deny the right of judicial review is too dangerous a person to be entrusted with power.”
- Calgacus99 , Ayr, 08/9/2013 00:52

No comments: