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For over a decade, UK charities and not-for-profit organisations have endured threats to their ability to speak out about public policy that affects their members and supporters.
Now an alarming new report by the non-profit Sheila McKechnie Foundation and Civil Exchange reveals exactly how charities are being silenced.
The report’s authors conversed with individuals spanning the political spectrum, including charity representatives, grassroots campaigners, and MPs.
They found that the social fabric of democracy – which they term the “democratic space” – is under threat. This space enables people and civil society organisations to influence policies, services, laws, and culture.
“Many charities are afraid to speak up about problems they see, partly because of the chilling effect of legislation, partly because of restrictions when they receive government money, and partly due to the hostile political rhetoric they encounter,” the report states.
“Some politicians, including ministers, and newspapers are even portraying judges, lawyers, charities, campaigners, and parts of the media as a block to democracy rather than key components of it.”
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The report highlights the overhaul to judicial review, a mechanism often used by non-profits to challenge legislation.
Meanwhile, individual and collective rights to protest are also at risk, with peaceful protests curtailed and trade union powers dwindling following the passing of both the Lobbying Act and the new anti-strike law on Minimum Service Levels. .
Charity figures also pointed the researchers to the “undue influence on policy of certain vested interests, including big business, powerful media moguls, and think tanks funded through ‘dark money’”.
“This imbalance becomes ever greater as other voices are clamped down upon and the local media, which is so important to the health of our democratic space, continues its decline,” the analysts found.
Among the threats identified is the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, also known as the Lobbying Act. This legislation has hamstrung charities’ campaigning efforts in the run-up to elections.
At the same time, ‘gagging’ clauses now limit not-for-profit organisations that receive public funds from publicly highlighting problems with policy or government decision-making.
All this has coincided with a decline in the standards of public service, including commitments to transparency and integrity, making government less accessible to non-profits and bumping up private sector lobbyists in the pecking order.
Recent events, such as the controversial unlawful proroguing of Parliament by Boris Johnson during the Brexit negotiations, and the misuse of so-called ‘Henry VIII’ ministerial powers, have exacerbated concerns about accountability, while – as Byline Times has previously reported – the Government has started barring experts critical of its policies from official platforms.
Johnson misleading Parliament over ‘Partygate’ also marked as another low point for democracy, alongside sweeping executive powers being handed to the Government through the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill.
This gives ministers the power to make laws to replace EU-derived laws without full parliamentary scrutiny or possibility of amendment. Critics fear that this would lock-out the voices of campaigners while handing more sway to those within the Conservatives’ “orbit” of influencers.
The recent Public Order Act was also amended by decree in June, allowing ministers to redefine ‘serious disruption’ as anything ‘more than minor’ – effectively overruling a successful House of Lords amendment to the Act itself that ruled this out. (This is now being challenged legally by the charity, Liberty).
For the authors of the report, the state of the press – much of it owned by “offshore media moguls” – was exemplified by the Daily Mail‘sfront-page headline ‘Enemies of the People’ in 2016, after three judges ruled that Brexit could not be implemented without the consent of Parliament. It was widely seen as further toxifying the already perilously polarised Brexit debate.
“If you want to make sense of what’s going on at the policy level, it’s absolutely vital to talk about the failure and corruption of the media, or large parts of UK media, and the rhetoric that they’ve been pumping out,” one charity figure told the authors.
Local media, a “vital part” of public transparency and accountability, has also “shrunk to nothing” in some parts of the country and is struggling elsewhere.
Research and analysis commissioned by the Government in 2020 found that the closure of local and regional news titles has led to “under-reporting and less scrutiny of democratic functions.”
At the same time, the Government has taken action that has undermined the power of the media to hold it to account – including appointing political figures to the board of the BBC, like former Conservative staffer Sir Robbie Gibb, and the ousted BBC chair and ex-Tory donor Richard Sharp.
They also point to recent Government attempts to restrict scrutiny and reporting from certain news outlets – including the Home Secretary’s decision to invite only the ‘friendly’ media outlets on a visit to Rwanda in March, or the boycott of both the Today programme and Channel 4 News by ministers under the Johnson administration.
Proposed changes to the Official Secrets Act in the National Security Bill could also erode the ‘public interest’ defence for journalists publishing leaked stories.
The Sheila McKechnie Foundation paper argues that a “balanced media” would give as much credence and attention to the views of not-for-profit organisations as it does to financial interests, “if not more”.
The increasing traction of ‘culture wars’ in political discourse is another significant concern raised by charities consulted for the report. Over the past few years, campaigners have frequently been painted as obstacles or saboteurs by populist politicians.
One interviewee’s observation underscored the scale of concern in the third sector, saying: “If you join up the dots between the various things that are happening, you have what amounts to a very serious threat to democracy itself.”
Another quote from an anonymous third sector spokesperson brings the point home: “Concern about the criminalisation of peaceful protests [has] been preceded by years of demonisation of climate protestors and anti-racism protestors, including Black Lives Matter, which has helped make the case for these draconian laws limiting the right to peaceful protest.
“It’s really important that we show that there’s a sort of step-by-step process and the first step is demonisation and vilification.”
From Liz Truss’ “anti-growth coalition” rhetoric to Conservative Deputy Chairman Lee Anderson’s vague attacks on “wokeness”, there appears to be a concerted effort to undermine campaigners critical of official policy.
Another respondent added: “The people who are in power, largely Government ministers, are talking about a ‘cancel culture’, ‘wokeism’, when actually all that is a very, very calculated narrative to propagate the idea that people engaging with democracy on reformist platforms are extremists. There’s now this idea that extremism is whatever the Government deems to be outside of their agenda.”
The report states that “the people we spoke to said the overall problem is serious, growing, and largely going unnoticed – one interviewee likened it to a boiled frog who fails to notice the water heating until it is too late”.
The issues at stake tangibly affect ordinary people’s lives by weakening the power of individuals and their representative organisations – fostering disillusionment and political disengagement, according to the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, which aims to “unleash social power”.
And the “chasm” between the governed and governors could lead to growth in extremism and societal rifts, the authors note.
While the UK has historically championed democracy abroad, its global standing is being eroded due to recent clampdowns. Recent analysis from analysts at CIVICUS Monitor demoted the health of the UK’s civil society – or “civic space” – from “narrowed” to “obstructed”, placing the nation alongside countries like Poland and Hungary.
It emphasises the potential power of united forces across sectors, advocating for a “coalition of the concerned”. The charitable sector, having borne the brunt of these challenges, is poised to lead this movement, they argue. And they urge politicians to recognise their responsibility in “safeguarding” our democratic space.
The next general election presents a potential “reset” opportunity – though there is little guarantee that a future Labour government would repeal much of the anti-campaigning legislation passed in recent years.
But the report ends on a hopeful note, calling for collective action to restore and rejuvenate our democratic space.
Sue Tibballs, CEO of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, and Caroline Slocock, director of Civil Exchange, write: “We must recognise the crisis before it is too late, [and] work together to arrest further decline, and reimagine our democratic space – one where people’s voices count and our democratic institutions are truly accountable, goals that our research tells us cross political divides. We cannot simply hunker down and hope threats will go away.”
They note that longer-term drivers of democratic decay, such as the “disproportionate influence of big business and media moguls, or the polarising effect of social media” will remain whichever administration is in power.
But they add: “We are at a tipping point. If our elected representatives ignore the cumulative impact on public trust and confidence in our system, and instead choose to further erode our democratic space, they will do serious damage to their own legitimacy, their ability to deliver for the British people, and to democracy itself.”
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