PM backs down over gagging clauses

Gettytheresamayweb

UK Government contracts with charities will be rewritten to provide assurances that charities and social enterprises can criticise government policy

Susan Smith's photo

6th December 2018 by Susan Smith 0 Comments

Charities in England will be free to criticise government again after the Prime Minister has backed down over the use of so-called gagging clauses.

In a letter to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), Theresa May said officials would clarify contracts to ensure charities understand they are free to speak out against government policy.

It comes after years of campaigning over the use of gagging clauses in government contracts.

Earlier this year, a Times newspaper investigation revealed that criminal justice charities working mainly in England had been told they could not criticise the government on prison reform.

It has been alleged that up to 40 charities were affected.

It followed revelations that groups working to deliver the Westminster government’s Work Programme have been told they must not be critical of work and pensions secretary Esther McVey.

A clause in the contract for delivering the programme stipulates signed-up charities must “pay the utmost regard to the standing and reputation” to McVey and the Department for Work and Pensions.

Stuart Etherington, chief executive of NCVO wrote to May asking her to “confirm unambiguously” that charities would not be prevented from campaigning because they are involved in a government contract.

He said: “Any policy which mutes what the government might hear will create problems in the long term. If we want a healthy democracy and a healthy nation, we should encourage transparency and openness, along with reasoned discussion and debate informed by those at the front line of policy implementation and service delivery.”

Earlier this week, May responded. She denied that clauses used in existing contracts were gagging clauses, but confirmed her belief in the importance of third sector campaigning and said contracts would be rewritten in future to reflect this.

She said: “It is vital that the sector’s independence and freedom of speech are protected to allow charities and social enterprises to continue providing a voice for everyday people”.

She also said the government “recognises the important voice of charities and social enterprises in speaking out on behalf of beneficiaries, and in contributing their valuable insights and expertise to the development of government policy”.

Responding to May’s letter, Etherington said: “This letter will reassure charities working under these contracts, but it also sends a message more widely. This is a clear statement that the prime minister believes charities should be uninhibited in speaking out about the fact they’re finding on the ground.”

The Scottish Government has long argued against the use of gagging clauses in its contracts with Scottish charities.

Speaking at Scotland’s Gathering of the third sector in February 2016, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon assured charities there would be no gagging clauses in Scottish Government contracts.