General elections always pose a challenge for policy wonks. On the one hand, this is a once in 5 year opportunity to influence the direction of government – although it currently feels like it happens every summer. On the other hand, the media seems almost entirely consumed with stories of leaders’ debates – or lack thereof – and gaffes on the doorstep. Politicians are justifiably distracted by the immediate challenge of keeping their jobs.
As an optimist, I’m inclined to focus on the chances to influence government policy, rather than logistical difficulties. That’s why ACEVO wrote to all major parties last week to outline what we want to see in their manifestos. My hope is that these letters will be one of hundreds that are received from charities up and down the country.
Certainly, this is what I would expect if charities have heeded the advice in Speaking frankly, acting boldly, our new report on charity campaigning. It would be a sign of charities feeling confident to speak up on behalf of their beneficiaries.
And there’s absolutely no reason why that can’t be the case. Despite the Lobbying Act, anti-advocacy clauses and unhelpful proclamations from the regulator, the legal basis remains unchanged. CC9, the guidance from the Charity Commission, holds that charities can campaign in furtherance of their charitable objectives.
But I would go further than this. Charities with the means and expertise should campaign. The reality is that the levers of power are held by elected officials. The government spends nearly £20 for every £1 that the charity sector spends1. The ability to create legislation is one of the most effective ways of ensuring behavioural change. Working with government can be the most effective way for a charity to ensure positive change for their beneficiaries.
If you want an example of this, you need look no further back than the Homelessness Reduction Bill, which is currently awaiting royal assent. The work of charities such as Crisis and St Mungos was crucial to the passage of the Bill, and can be counted as a major success. I can’t be sure, but I suspect that without the work of these charities – from conversations with the bill sponsor, Bob Blackman MP, to publically calling on MPs across the house to support it – the bill would likely have remained one of the many private members’ bills which fail to become law every year.
In Speaking frankly, acting boldly, we reference six charity campaigns which have made a real difference to our society. Not all of these involved legislative change, and not all of them were speaking up for vulnerable people. Like the sector, the successes of charity campaigns are incredibly diverse. What unites them is the public benefit they have delivered.
Charity campaigning has been at the forefront of the introduction of legislation which meant wheelchair users are entitled to access shops and offices; which banned smoking inside public buildings – reducing the number of people admitted to hospital with smoking related health problems; which ensured marital rape does not go largely unpunished by the courts. In short, without charity campaigns, our society would be neither as strong nor as fair.
And, as a sector, we should be proud of this. When we list our achievements, it should be front and centre. And not just the national set piece campaigns. If a local charity persuades their council to protect the funding for a refuge, they should trumpet that fact. Campaigning is as valid a charitable activity as any other.
All of this should help build up a genuine understanding – among everyone from charity staff to politicians and the general public – of the benefits charity campaigning has achieved.
These benefits are why I, and ACEVO, will continue to be robust in defence of charity campaigning. By promoting the impact of charity campaigning, we can try to head off any future threats to campaigning which may arise. And, further than this, we can begin to create an environment in which charity campaigning is actively encouraged by government. This might seem ambitious, but there was a time when that was true for all charity campaigns. It has never stopped us before, and it won’t stop us now.
By Simon Dixon, Policy Officer
1 Based on a comparison between the NCVO Almanac and the whole of government accounts.