Thursday 4 September 2014

Charities and campaigning: Brooks Newmark tweets

There has been a Twitter storm overnight, after remarks about charity campaigning made by our new Minister for Civil Society at a Conference yesterday. Initially reported in Civil Society, the comments then surfaced on the Guardian front page and in the MirrorTelegraph and Independent. Like many who saw the reports of his words, I was surprised to say the least.

But fortunately I had a meeting with Brooks early that afternoon, so I was able to beard him in his den. We had a robust exchange of views, and what was clear to me was that he is not challenging our right to campaign. Indeed he specifically told me he supports the right of charities to lobby and campaign. He was making the point that this cannot stray into party politics. And of course he is right. It is the the same point I made in a letter to the Times last week, that ‘charities speak for their beneficiaries, never for political parties.’

The Charity Commission explicitly protects the right of charities to be political but not to be partisan. It is our age-old duty to help our beneficiaries and causes both by delivering services and advocating with them and on their behalf. 
There is of course confusion in some parts about what exactly the boundary is between being ‘political’ and being ‘partisan’ - the former being intrinsic to charities’ role in alleviating and preventing injustice and suffering, the latter being the role of political parties. But to be fair to our new Minister, though he might have been more careful in what he said in the context of all the rows on the Lobbying Act, he did take pains to clarify what he meant in a subsequent tweet.

My meeting was in fact very positive. We discussed the importance of continuing to press for public service reform and the role of sector organisations in providing citizen - and community-focused  public services which are also more cost effective, as well as the need for the sector to organise itself better through consortia and alliances. 

And we finished by discussing how we can develop leadership in our sector; a subject on which I found him passionate and engaged. We both agreed on the essential difference leadership makes to organisations and how key that is both to the strategic direction of organisations, and to their operational resilience. I was outlining some of the ideas we have at ACEVO for new programmes for leadership support for aspiring and ambitious CEOs. 

So, my judgment is we have an ally in our new Minister. He is not attacking our right to campaign, and we can take his words as encouragement to keep 
speaking truth to power. The twittersphere can calm down!

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