Civil society can often be a pain to those who hold elected office or run public services. Charities and community groups rarely queue up at the town hall to congratulate the council on what they have done.
They don’t often get in touch with the local health leaders to simply offer support. And, when they do get a meeting in Whitehall, they usually come with a list of things they want changed, not a list of things that they want to praise.
Charities may speak to the media or launch online campaigns. They may organise petitions or lobbies or even demonstrations. They may try to use legal challenges to attack and change policies through the courts. Some in the sector may even denounce and question the motives of policymakers.
No wonder then, at times, the public sector, councils and Whitehall try to keep civil society at arm’s-length, limiting transparency and access or finding forums that seem to include them but in fact limit their potential activity and their ability to make their point.
Attempts to limit dissenting voices
From the perspective of at least some in civil society, something along these lines is going on right now in central government. Whether intended or not, there seem to be several things happening at the same time. There’s a review of the use of judicial review; there’s the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which has now had its Second Reading; there’s some talk of bringing charities into the Lobbying Act registration rules; and threats to revise the Human Rights Act.
Over the past few weeks, these attempts to limit dissenting voices have seeped into mainstream public discourse. No doubt, the use of force by police at the vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common has brought some increased attention on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The recent protests in Bristol over this bill, which have turned violent, also show the fervour that some hold about proposed changes to the ways in which people can voice disagreement in this country.
All this is set against the backdrop of the general belief that, whatever its intentions, the Lobbying Act of 2014 has had a ‘chilling effect’ on civil society campaigning. This includes the very specific measure the government took in 2016 to insert a clause into all its grant agreements which bans organisations in receipt of funding from using that money to campaign or lobby the government.
Added to this have been the recent, highly publicised meetings with government ministers about how heritage organisations and charities should talk about Britain’s past. And there have also been what look to some like government-inspired press attacks on major charities like the National Trust and Barnardo’s—for talking about slavery or white privilege—fuelled by the outgoing Charity Commission chair, herself a former Conservative Leader of the House of Lords. It is therefore no wonder that some feel as if something rather worrying is stirring in the bowels of government.
The power of civil society
This nervousness and apparent attempt to stifle the voice of civil society is bad for all of us. At NPC we work in different ways to try to increase the impact of the social sector, so that more people can be helped by it, and apart from effective service delivery, the sector achieves this by sharing its experiences and arguing for its beliefs and beneficiaries through campaigning and influencing.
It is the charity sector that points out to the public sector when groups of people are being left out of getting a good service. It is community groups that know what is going on in their locality and have ideas on how best to address the issues. And it is this sector that brings new ideas to the table—be that micro innovation on how to tackle loneliness, or new ways of delivering advice services, or helping to put big issues on the policy agenda like poverty, rights to roam, gender inequality, and climate change.
Civil society needs to respect those who have been elected to office too. But better than shying away from all this activity, or even trying to block it, we need a public sector and political culture, at all levels, that finds ways of talking to civil society, knowing that this will involve criticism but realising that this is just part of the deal.
A plurality of voice is a key part of a healthy and thriving democracy. A world where these groups are ignored, side-lined or censored would therefore be a much less bright one. It is no accident that the first thing dictatorships try to do is quash this sector and that a flowering of civil society is always a sign of a nation getting comfortable with democratic norms.
Policymakers and politicians who care about the longer-term health of our society need to hold their nerve and avoid reflex actions to shut down voices they don’t like. We will all be the better for that.
A version of this blog was originally published on The MJ.co.uk on 16 March 2021.