Three new reports on partnership working between faith and local government.

Voluntary sector independence under serious threat, says panel

The independent voice of the voluntary sector has been seriously compromised in the past 12 months, the Independence Panel, a watchdog of senior charity experts, said today.

The Panel’s latest report: Independence under Threat, said that both explicit government actions, and inactions, had had a serious impact on the independence of campaigning charities working with it.

The report says the Government has:

Imposed contractual gagging orders on some charities, stopping them speaking out about government policies or publicly releasing data

Advised local authorities not to fund certain campaigning charities

Failed to carry out its own policies to support the independence of the voluntary sector.

Sir Roger Singleton, chair of the Independence Panel, said: “Voluntary organisations enjoy widespread support because they are independent and distinctive.

"It is not just the personalised help they give. It is also their independent voice on behalf of unpopular causes, which is especially important when engagement in mainstream politics is declining.

“Our investigations show that in the past 12 months, the Government has directly threatened that independence, requiring some charities which carry out work for government departments to toe the government line.

“The Government has also failed to live up to its own commitments in The Compact, in which it promises to defend the independence of UK charities.

“Central and local government funding cuts are fuelling the problem. With less money available, charities are less willing to criticise government actions to protect their survival. Some charities are ‘self-editing’ in order to keep on providing services. “

“We are beginning to see voices for some marginalised people being silenced, democracy being eroded and society impoverished.”

The Panel’s conclusions are based on a wide-range of evidence, including from charity leaders, who said that their independence was at risk and that they felt less able to speak out against government policies that adversely affected their clients because of the impact of contracts with central and local government.

A Work Programme contract from the Department of Work and Pensions, for example, expressly forbids contracted organisations to make “any press announcements or publicise the Contract or its contents in any way.”

Responding to the report, deputy CEO of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Ben Kernighan said: “The report is a welcome contribution to the debate. It’s right that we keep a close eye on relationships between charities and the state.

“The panel rightly highlighted gagging clauses as an area of tension. This is something our members expressed deep concern about in Work Programme contracts. We’re pleased the government has now clarified the intention of these clauses but we continue to watch the issue closely.

“The government’s commitment to the Compact is welcome, though it’s clear that better monitoring is needed in some areas, especially in the contexts of major public service reforms and budget cuts.

“Many charities enjoy positive relationships with Government at all levels – whether they are delivering a service or representing the people they work for. It’s right that charities can continue to advise and challenge government, whatever their funding arrangements.”

The Panel also found that the role of campaigning charities is starting to be attacked more widely by central government.

In December 2012 the Department of Communities and Local Government issued guidance to local authorities advising them to stop funding so-called “fake charities” that “lobby and call for more state regulation and more state funding.”

Last year, Save the Children UK was criticised in two national newspapers and by some Conservative MPs for campaigning for action to reduce child poverty in the UK, with allegations that it was being political.

The Government has signed an agreement with the voluntary sector: The Compact, in which it commits to protect the independence of UK charities.

But non compliance is widespread, the evidence set out in the report shows, and monitoring by central government is poor.

Singleton added: “The sector as we know it is at risk, with the threat to its independence being greatest for organisations working with disadvantaged people, which often rely on state funding to maintain essential services. This should concern everyone who values the role of the voluntary sector in our society.

“We know that the Government wants, in principle, to protect the independence of UK charities and that voluntary organisations also bear a responsibility to preserve it.

"But the Government is undermining that independence both directly and through its failure to act in support of the sector through effective regulation, funding and contracting arrangements.”

This article was taken from Charity Times – http://www.charitytimes.com/ct/voluntary_sector_independence_under_serious_threat_says_panel.php