Another threat to charities’ freedom of speech

Posted on 11/01/2015


Threat to charities freedom of speechWant to sneak out a threat to freedom of speech in the UK? Worried about the backlash from charities and campaigners? Not to fear, Friday December 19th (or “fall-over Friday”) was a perfect time to bury some bad news.

Or at least, this is presumably what was being discussed at the Charity Commission when deciding how to deal with a complaint about Oxfam.

Following a campaign by two Tory MPs, the Charity Commission has ruled that Oxfam was “overtly political” in tweets campaigning against the rising levels of poverty in the UK.

Rather than use their power to tackle the causes of the issue highlighted by the charity, the MPs reported Oxfam to the Commission which in turn has ruled that the charity (and by default all charities campaigning on UK political matters that are not explicitly covered by their articles of association or charitable objectives) must have all tweets approved.

And here’s the issue. Approved by who?

The Charity Commission (which, let’s not forget, is funded entirely by government to regulate charities) criticised Oxfam for not having internal approval processes in place to approve tweets before they were sent out.

But with the Electoral Commission also breathing down charities’ necks under the guise of the Lobbying Act (which ridiculously they now say applies to blogs), how can charities even be confident that their internal processes will be enough?

Indeed, the Electoral Commission’s own social media guidance to ‘non-party campaigners’ states “all material published on social media as part of a campaign will meet” the tests it deploys when assessing if campaign activity could be classed as political.

A cautious bunch of charity trustees may take this ruling and insist that the charity says nothing which could be construed as being even remotely political. Or that they should seek approval from regulators before launching a campaign. (Although in posts to the E-Campaigners Forum, Oxfam themselves say they do not believe this is the case and urge charities to keep campaigning).

But the implications go much wider.

The censorship of charity speech is just the thin end of the wedge. Some charities, like foodbank provider The Trussell Trust, have reported thinly veiled threats by the government to use the levers of power to close them down. And as well as the obvious threats to charities’ freedoms to operate, social media is an easy chink in the armour to attack campaigners with.

As the PR industry association heard at a recent event, being free to act fast is vital to charities’ ability to fundraise in a social media age. And if you hamper or destroy a charity’s ability to fundraise, you kill off its ability to pursue its core charitable objectives.

So, 2015 is set to be a defining year for charities’ and campaigners’ ability to communicate and any further rulings like this diktat by the Charity Commission must be resisted.

Labour has pledged to scrap the Lobbying Act if it wins the next election. But the party must go further, it needs to prevent any further erosions by state bureaucracy into charities’ abilities to function.