I have written several blogs about the decision by the coalition Government to gag charities in the period prior to General Elections through the Lobbying Act. I have spoken to others involved in the charitable sector whose concerns echo my own and perhaps unsurprisingly a number of people in the Labour Party who are equally concerned, this may simply be because their own policy is to oppose the Bill. Finally I have received various responses from Conservative Party members, belittling my own frustration and concerns. However this weekend the Charity Commission issued a judgement over the actions of Oxfam, a charity that several MPs have complained has become politicised. The Commission have confirmed that the gagging Bill means that charities are meant to stay quiet over the next few months. In the judgement the Commission states:
“Using social media can be an effective and powerful medium for charities to get their messages across and maintain contact with their supporters. However, particularly given the nature of the media, the same care needs to be taken as for any other material produced by the charity – including having written authorisation and sign-off procedures. Particular care should be taken to ensure that any material does not damage the charity’s reputation or impact on public trust and confidence in the charity, that messages are appropriate and in furtherance of its objects and do not have any risk of being misinterpreted or perceived as being party political. The need for trustees to have clear oversight of the campaigning work of their charities is essential. This is particularly important prior to elections and referendums (the regulated period prior to the 2015 general election as set out by the Electoral Commission commenced on 19th September).”
As someone with extensive experience as a Trustee of various Charities, small, medium and large I know how challenging it is for Trustees to personally ‘oversee’ the actions of Employees and Volunteers who one wishes to give the freedom to act in a responsible fashion on behalf of the charity. It would be entirely unreasonable of Trustees if they failed to provide guidelines on what is acceptable and what is not. However the idea of asking Trustees to sign off leaflets that are to be printed for mass circulation or even e-mails to be circulated as some form of e-newsletter is something that many charities struggle to achieve in a timely manner, bearing in mind the sort of deadlines that emerge say at Christmas. However it is absurd to ask line managers, let alone Trustees to sign off tweets or facebook posts. It appears from their own use of social media that neither the Charity Commission nor most of their Political paymasters have the first clue of how most of us actually use social media. It clearly suits our coalition to tie up 163,000 charities and their Trustees with red tape so constricting that they remain silent for the next 6 months. However the charitable sector is at its best when it is dynamic and responsive, let us hope voters take this into account when they cast their vote in May.