Charity Commission obeyed Parliament and blocked free speech

Gagging LobbyingLast Thursday a fascinating debate took place in Parliament which on the face of it involved both Lords and MPs although the only people who spoke were MPs and the irony of their frustration towards the Charity Commission was lost on them as their House unlike the Lords voted to end any risk of Charities being perceived to  support any Political group or policy. In their efforts to stop charities speaking out in a way that could be interpreted as being party political, they effectively voted for an end to free speech by charities on many levels. Thursdays debate was about Universities and Students Unions, both of which are charities under the current arrangements, but it is vital that this is understood as being a much wider issue. If the Charity Commission over-reacted towards the lobbying bill, they did so as a Government Agency (under the chairmanship of a Tory) to fulfil the coalitions wishes and it is vital that all charities are seen to have been affected, not just those in Higher Education settings.

Harriet Harman: The right to free speech is of course a foundation for democracy. It is important in all settings, but especially in universities, where education and learning are advanced through dialogue and debate..[Jo Johnson] had said that the problem was students. However, we felt that the problem was not only students inhibiting one another’s time and opportunity to speak, but a number of other issues such as the Charity Commission… that is controversy-averse which is having a chilling effect on free speech. Its guidance warns student unions that they could risk their charitable status if they have controversies that could risk their reputation as a charity. We think that the Charity Commission goes way beyond the law and is having a chilling effect on students’ free speech.

Fiona Bruce: Free speech is indeed a foundation for democracy in society, and universities are places where many of tomorrow’s leaders learn how to explore ideas in a way that prepares them to engage in and influence wider society, so it is critical that free speech is secured in universities…. Article 9 of the European convention on human rights states that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” Article 10 sets out the right to freedom of speech and a right to, “hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority”, and this “can extend to the right to say things which may…disturb the listener”, and which the listener might find offensive or even shocking….A number of factors were limiting free speech at universities such as regulatory complexity and confusion, confusion over the Charity Commission guidelines, and unduly complicated and cautious guidance from the Charity Commission itself about what student unions could or could not do in organising events and permitting speakers to attend.

I want to talk in a little more detail about the Charity Commission…. The wording of clause 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 imposes an obligation on university governing bodies to take “such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured” on both university and students union premises. I have written underneath, “proactive”. This is a proactive clause. It requires them to take steps to secure free speech, so I entirely agree. It does not help, for example, when, as charities, students unions have been told that they can devote resources to or campaign only on issues that further their charitable purposes. The Charity Commission has interpreted this—I think, and our Committee agrees —in a far too narrow way.

The Charity Commission guidance for students unions indicated that it would consider it acceptable for charitable students’ unions to comment on “street lighting near the campus” because the issue affects students as students, and therefore fulfils their charitable purposes. The Charity Commission would consider it unacceptable for students unions to comment publicly on issues that do not directly affect the welfare of students as students, such as, “the treatment of political prisoners in a foreign country.”

The Minister (Sam Gyimah) told our Committee that the Charity Commission guidance should “go further and facilitate the promotion of free speech. It should be giving students’ unions the permission to host debates about controversial issues and expose students to a wide range of viewpoints. That should be the core purpose.” That is quite right. It is not just preferable that free speech is promoted and protected in universities. It should be a prerequisite for any university that is going to achieve its educational purposes. I am pleased that the Charity Commission has acknowledged as much this week and has announced in response to our report that it will create new guidance in this area.”

The fact that Fiona and Sam are members of the Party that added the Part 2 of the Bill to end Lobbying means that they are partly responsible for the challenge which they now expect the Charity Commission to put right. Let us hope this lack of integrity in their approach is highlighted and that they acknowledge that they are to blame for the problem and seek to free up other charities from the gag that they have placed on them.

About ianchisnall

I am passionate about the need for public policies to be made accessible to everyone, especially those who want to improve the wellbeing of their communities. I am particularly interested in issues related to crime and policing as well as health services and strategic planning.
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