OGN Letters 11th September 2014

OGN Letter: Charities, politics & civic space

Members of the UK OGP civil society network sent the following letter to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, on the subject of charities, politics and civic space.

The Rt Hon Francis Maude MP
The Cabinet Office
70 Whitehall

10 September 2014

Dear Minister

Charities, politics and civic space

You have on a number of occasions spoken of the importance of civil society holding government’s feet to the fire. Indeed, it has become a popular catchphrase within the Open Government Partnership community – encapsulating civil society’s vital role in ensuring that government is properly scrutinised and held to account.

We were therefore surprised and concerned at the comments made by your ministerial colleague Brooks Newmark in his first speech as Minister for Civil Society, that charities should “stick to their knitting” and “keep out of politics”. One might be forgiven for expecting a Minister for Civil Society to use such an address to defend the right of civil society to criticise and challenge the government of the day, particularly in light of attacks on civic space by governments around the world. If democracy is to function well, and government to be truly open and accountable, it is everyone’s responsibility – particularly those working with some of the most disadvantaged communities – to scrutinise and challenge government policy.

 Charities that campaign on issues or against policies related to their charitable objectives are not interfering in party politics; they are performing their legitimate role as a civil society actor. On this the Charity Commission is clear:

“All charities are united by having a vision of a better society. They have many different purposes, and are focused on different needs. But in the main they are united by a desire to achieve change, whether for a particular group of people in need, or for the wider common good. It is not surprising then that many charities wish to speak out, to use their voice and influence, and to campaign for the changes that would best help them achieve their purposes.”

The OGP, which you have championed, is based on the principle that civil society organisations, including charities, should play a full role in public debate. We encourage you to clarify the comments of your ministerial colleague and revisit recent legislation restricting non-party campaigning. Such attacks on civil society undermine the UK’s reputation and the cause of open government both domestically and internationally. The UK must set an example to those governments around the world intent on avoiding scrutiny and assert the right of civil society to speak out.

Yours sincerely,

Alan Hudson, Global Integrity
Alexandra Runswick, Unlock Democracy
Andy Williamson, Democratise
Anthony Zacharzewski, The Democratic Society
Cathy James, Public Concern at Work
Christine Allen, Christian Aid
David Banisar, ARTICLE 19
Diane Sheard, The ONE Campaign
Javier Ruiz, Open Rights Group
Laura James, Open Knowledge
Maurice Frankel, Campaign for Freedom of Information
Miles Litvinoff, Publish What You Pay UK
Robert Barrington, Transparency International UK
Simon Burall, Involve
Tim Davies, Practical Participation

Download: Charities, politics and civic space