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Now the Electoral Commission is acting like a spy

Taking a stand and speaking truth to power takes some courage. When the response of those in power is an overbearing and disproportionate attempt to shut you up, you can bet it is because what you are saying is an uncomfortable truth.

So we have the chancellor, George Osborne, in his Tory party conference speech this month, calling on business to take a stand against the charity sector, as though it were some fifth column. McCarthyesque.It’s bad enough that we have the lobbying act: a piece of legislation so hastily and badly drafted, so under-consulted and so unfit for purpose that from the beginning politicians have been at pains to say that charities have misunderstood its intention and overstated its consequences. Was it lazily drafted with unintended consequences, or is the “chilling effect” it has delivered exactly what was intended?

And what to make of Lib Dem MP Martin Horwood, himself a long-serving charity fundraiser in a previous life? He recently wrote that the bill was poorly worded and that charities should have been excluded from the terms of the legislation. He said a Lib Dem government would review and amend the bill “as a first priority”. It’s a bit late now, and a bit of an empty promise given current polling. And remember, he voted for it.

And what has the Electoral Commission just announced? Charities will need to record the social media activity of their staff when it comes to any electorally-sensitive communications, and they will be monitoring output to watch for contraventions. How they will do that monitoring? They won’t say, in case it helps people avoid detection. The mind boggles at the thought of Electoral Commission staff sitting in dark basement rooms as spies do on the telly, using high-tech means to monitor the personal twitter accounts of charity staff.

Of course I exaggerate, but what a waste of time. This, surely, is a stupid consequence of stupid legislation. Charities are feeling anxious about stuff they probably don’t need to worry about, and are self-censoring unnecessarily. The NVCO warns against a storm in a teacup with a very sensible and measured comment. But it doesn’t stop the lobbying act being a heavy hammer to crack a nut.

The Charity Commission already has clear guidance on the acceptable parameters for charity campaigning. It is politicians who are conflating “political” and “party political”. It is legitimate for charities to comment on the impact of policy – from all parties – when they are the ones with direct experience of the consequences. Implying this is “party political” is disingenuous and a clear effort to stifle criticism and debate. George Osborne’s speech suggests charities are doing their job in speaking truth to power, and they should carry on doing so.

Matthew Sherrington is an independent charity consultant at Inspiring Action @m_sherrington

  • Edward Harkins

    Great idea! As you honestly state; “So this is a plea – in hope rather than expectation – ” But in this challenging times ‘hope’ may be all that many folks have. So keep it up.
    @EdwardHarkins

  • Jan Cosgrove

    This is plain common sense. Local job centres could be given the task of checking out local projects which wished to offer opportunities – any which complied would be eligible, and those already volunteering (like ladies in museums, ho hum) could stay just where they were so long as the museum etc could help the person prepare for future employment. Efficient, clean, VOLUNTARY, no resentment, not forced labour (so ILO/ECHR compliant), rid of the workshy/undeserving poor label, a-political … of course they won’t do it. They like the sound of stick on flesh after all ….. gives them a buzz….. Win-win-win…..

  • Chris Lee

    I’m confused. You say “It was basically a structure that would have allowed unemployed people keep their benefits and earn a bit extra on top if they took on useful community work with local charities.” So are we talking about paid employment with charities or volunteering with charities?

    • David Ainsworth

      The scheme is intended to encourage paid employment at the minimum wage or above, with charities or other community organisations, for a few hours a week, without loss of benefits. There is a link to the original scheme in the second line of the text, or you can view it here: http://www.communityallowance.org.

      The scheme is intended to act as a bridge into full-time work by giving people the chance to get work experience and do something useful.

  • Eowyn Rohan

    Surely We cannot be “All In This Together” if, even within the Third Sector, any organisation proceeds to recruit staff, to fill positions, and yet presumes that they dont need to pay salary, tax, national insurance, or at least proceed (as with the notion of a Community Allowance) to invite candidates to accept lower than the Market Rate.

    • Jess Steele

      It would be worth looking up the community allowance on http://www.communityallowance.org.
      The proposal is to allow community groups to pay people to do work that is good for the neighbourhood without them losing their benefit status. The pay would never be below minimum wage and any individual would have a total cap of an annual amount equivalent to 15 hrs pw at minimum wage. The jobs that need doing in neighbourhoods – and that would be best done by local people – are usually part-time, short-term, sessional or seasonal (school crossing patrols, befriending, sports coaching, play schemes, environmental projects, etc etc). They are perfect for extending social networks (which is proven to help employment), building skills and confidence, and in many cases being flexible enough to work around caring responsibilities. During the year that someone was on the Community Allowance their employer would support them to move towards independence. This is a win (for the individual and their family)-win (for the neighbourhood)-win (for the taxpayer).

      You might also want to look at my blog on welfare reform and communities http://jesssteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/welfare-reform-communities/

  • Ivor Sutton

    It’s a good idea. However, my frustration is that Charities should already be ‘reaching out’ to those ambitious, asset-worthy job seekers who have first-hand and personal experience of the challenges the Charity works to tackle, and has the professional skills to benefit the organisation and client base. Sadly, I don’t feel this is happening in an effective way – as it should be. My question is, why?

    Speaking from personal experience, isn’t it imperative that Charities – and the Third Sector overall – strengthen before it grows, and sets out innovative ways to ‘reach out’ to uniquely sector-balanced individuals in order to secure in order to become become sustainable? Or, is it simply the fact that even in the realms of the ‘big society’ thesis or ‘plan’, it is the strength of ones collaborations and friends who ultimately determine whether you are sustainable or not?

  • carl allen

    But what will unprincipled politicians do to get and stay in power?