This week we have a guest blog from Sue Tibballs, OBE, Chief Executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation on their release of a report that shows the impact that the Lobbying Act and a whole host of factors that have given the charity sector pause before heading out to campaign on the issues they care about.

In May, Matthew Hancock, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, told charities ““I want to see civil society recover its confidence to speak into our public life, you have the right to campaign, to persuade the public, and to press for change in the systems which affect the life of this country.”

This week, the Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK) published The Chilling Reality. This new research finds that the Lobbying Act is just one of a raft of government policies affecting charity and voluntary sector campaigning. The bigger picture is more complex and even more worrying. The interplay between government policies, funding restrictions, media attitudes and public opinion has increased hostility to the idea that organisations should speak out on social issues.

SMK says that the ‘chilling effect’ of the Lobbying Act is a rational response to ambiguous legislation. The result is more cautious, less responsive campaigning. Those who lose out are the people directly affected by the issues. It is their voices, ultimately, that are being silenced.

Smaller charities and churches do important work to involve people with lived experience in political debates, both locally and nationally. They reported being more nervous about supporting political engagement. Even larger charities, whose governance systems and internal capacity should be better able to cope with such risk, reported stepping back from issues that were too controversial.

Immigration, benefits changes and the rights of disabled people were given as examples of ‘sensitive’ political issues. These are all areas in which government policies have significant impact on people’s security and wellbeing, so it’s deeply troubling that they should be regarded as ‘no go’ areas for political debate.

As a society, are we forgetting what politics is for and who gets to take part? It is not a rarefied specialist arena, in which only those connected to a political party may act. Nor are there some issues that it’s OK to shout about (like microbeads, litter, or ivory) and others that are off-limits (like social care, poverty or racism).

In the 60s, feminists used a famous slogan, ‘the personal is the political’. They meant that our personal experience of the world must be allowed to inform political analysis and debate. In their case, that meant recognising the deep-rooted and systemic nature of sexism. The Charity Commission explicitly recognises that “campaigning and political activity can be legitimate and valuable activities for charities to undertake”. Perhaps it is time for charities to renew their commitment to amplifying the voices and experiences of the people they work with into the political debate, and to take it on with a renewed confidence?

At the same time, it’s important that the Government recognises the implications this report’s findings. It has a duty to protect our civil space. If Matthew Hancock was serious about his comments last month, he will have to prove that he can match actions to words by telling us how he will protect and re-open the space in which charities can contribute to our national political debate.

Read the Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s report The Chilling Reality