Charities and NGOs are needed now more than ever — but they are under threat from this government

The Tories have a systematic plan to disable the influence of NGOs that don't fall in line, that launch controversial or challenging campaigns

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The Independent Online

Last Thursday I was invited to speak at a summer party for various charities, philanthropists and think tanks. I praised the way this country had evolved systems and institutions which maintained equilibrium between interests and authorities: “It is like an intricate, symbiotic, finely poised mobile made up of different shapes, components and colours”. They liked that image.

However, I warned, in recent times, an increasingly dominant state was tangling the threads and smashing parts of the precious, fragile structure. Checks and balances have been discarded; austerity is accompanied by ever more authoritarianism.  

First they went for the judges and lawyers who use the Human Rights Act to protect individuals from unfair immigration rules and benefits cuts. Then they turned on church leaders who spoke up for the disenfranchised and dispossessed. Trades unions and journalists are used to being demonised but the heat has been turned right up. Now it is the turn of the NGO sector to be pilloried and lampooned, with some leaders marked out as insurgents and destablisers. In my speech I praised Camila Batmanghelidjh, the colourful head of Kids Company, which reaches out to some of the most disturbed, neglected, brutalised and brutal children in the country. 

She was not afraid to take on ministers – in fact, some were terrified by her personality and popularity. The very next day the Government announced that Kids Company would receive no state grants unless there was a regime change. So Ms Batmanghelidjh stepped down. That shows how ruthless power operates. 

She has flaws – a queenly demeanour and oversized ego – but she was able to love and transform badland children. I met some of them, the lost kids roaming the urban jungles. Her methods could not be neatly encapsulated in tables and graphs. This move came two days after Iain Duncan Smith scrapped legally binding targets to deal with child poverty. This week George Osborne will announce further welfare cuts. Charities are in a horrible bind: as the Tories shrink the state, NGOs must help more of those in need but are expected not to speak out against the cuts.

The Trussell Trust which runs foodbanks and is critical of austerity measures, and Shelter, the charity for the homeless, which bravely criticises Government policies, bear the wrath of ministers because they will not sign up to this unholy deal. Oxfam has also been warned to behave. The Tory MP Conor Burns complained to the Charities Commission because the charity, instead of begging for cash (allowed) launched an anti-poverty campaign (absolutely not allowed). In 2014, Tory MP Brooks Newmark, then minister for civil society, told charities to “stick to their knitting”. He left politics after a sex scandal. Sometimes you have to believe there is a divine spirit out there, a just God who humbles the arrogant. 

The diminished but still unrepentant Lib Dems still maintain that when they were in the Coalition, they fended off the Conservatives’ most punitive policies. Not so. In those five years, the poorest got poorer and spending on children fell from around £40bn to £36bn. Furthermore, volunteering organisations were ordered to take in the unemployed for compulsory community service. Many refused and were not supported by the so-called caring party in government. Remember too that the pernicious Lobbying Act was passed last year, restricting the right of charities to campaign on political issues.


Martin Sime, CEO of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) believes the UK Government has a systematic plan to disable the influence of the third sector by denouncing those who don’t fall in line. Donors are already wary of campaigns considered controversial and annoying to the Government. Jay Kennedy, director of policy research at the Directory of Social Change is similarly forthright: “The role of charities is not just about alms giving and direct support but also about speaking the truth to power.” Those same views were privately, timorously shared at the summer party I addressed. 

The Charity Commission seems to be following the Government agenda. Its head is William Shawcross, hagiographer of the Queen Mother and defender of neocon wars, torture and Guantanamo Bay. He has been known to attack Amnesty International, human rights lawyers and activists. Under his leadership, all Muslim charities are being tested and scrutinised to the limit and many non-Muslim organisations feel they are suspected of being left wing and insubordinate. 

His appointment was extended this year despite severe criticisms of the Commission’s financial management by the National Audit office. This man of the establishment is the right man in the  right place for an ideologically driven  right-wing government. The board he has put together reflects those values. Lesley-Anne Alexander, CEO of the Royal National Institute of Blind People, speaks for many who remain silent: “The Commission aren’t cherishing the sector or the sector’s independence, they are fettering it.” 

The UK has more than 160,000 charities. Some have failed to deliver, but most are crucial to the well being of millions and remarkably effective. Once a counterforce to state control, now most are being pressured by the state into becoming apolitical, compliant, low cost providers of services. 

A “civil society” is defined as “the aggregate of NGOs and institutions that manifest the interests and will of citizens and individuals, independent of government”. We once were a civil society. Not any more. Soon there will be no such thing as a society. And Margaret Thatcher’s revolution will be complete.