Public Administration CommitteeSupplementary written evidence submitted by National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) (CH 53)

Following the announcement that on Tuesday 27 November the Public Administration Select Committee’s will be holding a session on political campaigning by charities as part of its post-legislative scrutiny inquiry into the implementation and operation of the Charities Act 2006, NCVO would like to submit the present additional written evidence.

Given our expertise in this area, there are some specific issues that may be discussed and on which we can provide clarification. In particular, the present submission highlights that:

campaigning is an entirely legitimate activity central to the work of many charities;

campaigning is a way in which charities can meet the needs of their beneficiaries;

there is widespread public support for charities’ campaigns;

the assertion that Government funding is being channelled into charity campaigning is not grounded in any evidence; and

any funding charities receive from Government is invariably restricted to service delivery.

Charities’ Right to Campaign

Campaigning is an entirely legitimate activity central to the work of many charities. Government must therefore recognise and respect charities’ independence and their right to campaign.

The positive impact of charity campaigning

Charity campaigns have been essential in bringing major social issues to public attention and achieving important social changes.

The Royal British Legion campaigned in 2007 for Government to honour its lifelong duty of care to those serving in the forces by honouring the Military Covenant. This four year campaign brought together people of all ages across the country, showing recognition of the great service provided by our veterans. Its inclusion in the Armed Forces Act 2011 has helped to ensure justice and respect to those who have fought for our country.

In the late 1990s, the RNID launched a Digital Hearing Aid Campaign, demonstrating the positive difference to people’s quality of life that can be achieved when a charity makes use of its knowledge to improve the services and opportunities offered to its beneficiaries. Following the decision to provide digital hearing aids on the NHS, the cost price reduced dramatically from £2500 to as low as £55 per unit.

At a smaller scale, yet equally powerful, BeatBullying campaigns to shape attitudes and behaviours around the issue of bullying. This charity has now become a household name and there are daily testaments of how its work has improved the lives of children and adults who previously had no course of action.

The importance of charity campaigning

The suggestion made by the “Sock Puppets” report that charities in receipt of government funding should not be allowed to lobby shows a complete lack of understanding of the sector and of the policy making process.

Charity campaigns are not self-serving: through their campaigning charities speak up on behalf of their beneficiaries, so this is a way in which they can meet the needs of their beneficiaries.

In addition, through their campaigning work, charities reinforce their independence because they enable people’s voices to be heard, either acting as advocates on their behalf, or supporting and encouraging them to speak up for themselves.

Therefore, far from “debasing the concept of charity”, campaigning helps charities advocate for disenfranchised people, or support and encourage them to speak up for themselves, and helps create a strong and independent sector.

Public support for charity campaigning

There is widespread public support for charities’ campaigns. According to recent research by nfpSynergy:

56% of the public identify “lobbying government and other organisations” as a worthwhile activity for charities;

67% of respondents agree that “...charities should be able to campaign to change laws and government policies relevant to their work”.

This snapshot of public opinion is a clear indication that, far from opposing charity campaigning, people consistently support it, through both engaging with charity campaigns and continuing to donate to charities that campaign.

Government funding

Instances of charities receiving money from Government to campaign are few and far between. It has been largely acknowledged that the Sock Puppets report hugely overstates the issue, and does not present any evidence to back up the assertion that Government funding is being channelled into charity campaigning.

Three quarters of all voluntary organisations do not receive any income from statutory sources. The funding charities receive from Government, either in the shape of grants or contracts, is invariably restricted to service delivery.

Even when charities receive specific amounts of money from the State in order to deliver public services, they should be able to campaign for change at the same time as delivering the best service they can within current confines.

NCVO has long maintained that campaigning and service delivery are not mutually exclusive but complementary ways of working. The combination of the two ensures that the type and quality of service an organisation offers is informed by its knowledge of user needs, while its campaigning work is strengthened and gains legitimacy because of the experience of providing services. And if a charity finds that a change to Government policy is required to better meet the needs of its beneficiaries, it is entirely legitimate.

Charitable status of Think Tanks

It is already widely acknowledged that the process of deciding whether a think tank is charitable is not always straightforward: sometimes there can be a very fine line between what “education” is, and what slips into political activity.

The Charity Commission itself has admitted that applying the principles of public benefit in such a grey area will always be difficult, and problematic cases will arise.

However, many think tanks do invaluable work under the broad term of advancing education, such as producing groundbreaking reports that have influenced policy for the better, or carrying out important research that has revealed faults in our society.

Furthermore, the Charity Commission has recently provided further guidance that has clarified the approach when registering think tanks. This is an improvement that, in our view, prevents the need to change the rules on political activity by charities derived from case law, which are widely considered to be proportionate and well-balanced.

November 2012

Prepared 5th June 2013