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New report warns of increasingly restrictive environment for campaigners

 

Plans to place new restrictions on the right to protest and stricter limits on access to judicial review will make it harder for campaigners to voice concerns and hold the UK Government to account, a new report has found

New restrictions will make it harder for charity campaigners to hold the government to account, civil society organisations have warned.

A report published this week by a group of voluntary sector organisations says that many campaigners who made important contributions to the initial UK Covid-19 response struggled to engage with the UK Government in later months of the pandemic.

Campaigning During Coronavirus: Lessons from UK Civil Society warns that plans to place new restrictions on the right to protest and stricter limits on access to judicial review will make it harder for campaigners to voice concerns and scrutinise government activity.

The study has been prepared by umbrella bodies Bond, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and Acevo, with Quakers in Britain, Unlock Democracy and the Civil Society Voice network.

It includes case studies of 10 successful campaigns undertaken during the pandemic, including Women’s Aid’s call for more funding for domestic abuse support services and the homelessness charity Shelter’s work for a temporary ban on evictions. However, it warns the sector is operating in a “challenging and at times antagonistic political environment”.

Report co-author Rowan Popplewell, civic space policy manager at Bond, the UK network for organisations working in international development, said: “From protecting millions of jobs in the UK to advocating for fairer access to vaccines globally, campaigners have ensured a more compassionate, inclusive and effective pandemic response.

“The pandemic revealed the power and benefit of campaigning. The political environment and legal restrictions like the Lobbying Act continue to create barriers for campaigners seeking to deliver change for the people and issues they care about. As we enter the second year of the pandemic, we need to reset the relationship between campaigners and decision-makers and take steps to better protect the right to campaign.”

The report reveals that during the initial weeks of the pandemic, campaigners were able to cut through and significantly influence government policy by building cross-party consensus, moving campaigning tactics online, and engaging with the public to highlight people’s stories of job losses or homelessness. 

Examples of success include the campaign for furlough, which led to the creation of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, saving millions of people from unemployment, and campaigning that sought to highlight the difficulties faced by private renters, which protected tens of thousands of people from being evicted. 

Lucy Bannister, policy campaigns manager at Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “The pandemic has had a huge impact on families in poverty and has posed many new challenges for our campaigning. However, by embracing digital technology and new ways of working we have been able to bring together huge numbers of organisations across the campaigning sector to collaborate quickly on shared priorities. 

“Our campaign against the upcoming £20 cut to Universal Credit shows how invaluable cross-sector collaboration is, as well as how important it is to have a consistent, well-framed narrative to secure political and media cut-through. The past year has exposed and exacerbated existing inequalities and has demonstrated that governments can take bold action to protect people on low incomes from harm. As we emerge from this pandemic, the sector will have a key role in shining a spotlight on longstanding injustices. We now need to work together to raise the ambitions of the public and politicians so we can shape a future where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.”

The report calls for the government to create a new framework that better protects the right to campaign.

It said: “Charities have been censured for speaking out against racism and discussing the legacies of colonialism; non-violent protest groups and organisations campaigning on climate change and animal rights have been labelled extremists; and lawyers, particularly those who represent marginalised groups and individuals, have been accused of hampering the criminal justice system.”

The report continued: “Rather than recognising the important support campaigners provided in the pandemic response over the last year, the UK government is moving ahead with plans to place greater restrictions on the right to protest – as part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – and limit access to judicial review – an important check on the government.

 

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