The criticism comes following media coverage surrounding the UK Government’s blocking of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill.
Leading voices from Scotland’s third sector have hit back at the UK’s newspaper of record following a front-page questioning the independence of campaigning charities and groups from the Scottish Government.
On Thursday, January 19, The Times’ Scotland edition splashed with a headline reading ‘Gender bill lobbyists get millions from SNP’, raising questions about the “political impartiality” of a number of groups.
The story was predicated on the funding of groups by the SNP-led administration at Holyrood who wrote an open letter to the UK Government’s Scottish Secretary, Alister Jack, following the decision to block the passage of Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill.
Mr Jack and the Conservative Government at Westminster issued a Section 35 order, preventing the bill from gaining royal assent and passing into law.
The piece also included commentary, which suggested that civic society in Scotland had been “captured” by the Scottish Government since devolution, claiming that groups’ political impartiality was “dubious” and brought into question the state of Scottish democracy.
Anna Fowlie, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), has now written to the editor of the Times to express the sector’s concerns with the claims.
She wrote: “Your recent article, ‘Gender lobbyists get millions from the SNP’, sadly shows a complete misunderstanding of what charities are about and can’t go without challenge.
Charities are an important voice for the people and communities they support. It is integral to their purpose to speak up and act to draw attention to the challenges those people face, regardless of how they are funded. Whatever one’s views are on a particular policy, it should come as no surprise when charities support or criticise the decisions of any government, be that in Scotland, Westminster, or across the world, if those decisions have an impact on the people they represent.
“Charities in Scotland have a long history of influencing the UK and Scottish Governments, and don’t shy away from criticising the decisions taken in Holyrood. We celebrate the sector working with – while also being prepared to challenge, debate, persuade and influence – the Scottish Parliament. Charities have a unique depth of knowledge and evidence to contribute to the public discourse, and their right to use that must be protected.
“Without charities playing that role, Scotland would not have been the first country in the UK and the second in Europe to introduce smoke-free legislation. The Equal Marriage campaign in Scotland to legalise same sex marriage and mixed sex civil partnerships in Scotland would not have happened. There would be no soft opt-out system for organ donation in Scotland without the campaign for it to be introduced.”
SCVO is the national membership organisation for the voluntary sector, aiming to support, promote and develop a confident, sustainable voluntary sector in Scotland
Ms Fowlie added: “Money comes into the sector from many sources – national and local government, philanthropy, trading and public donations. Organisations use their resources to pursue their charitable objectives, to the benefit of the people, communities or causes they support. Sometimes this means organisations will be in support of decisions and other times they will speak out against; that has been a role of charities for more than 200 years.
“The voluntary sector’s independence to speak out is vital - whether to hold governments and corporations to account, to push for legislative change, or indeed to support legislative change. To suggest that charities who receive national or local government funding should remain silent would be the real risk to the independence of charities, who have long had the confidence to speak up and act for what they believe, however they are funded. Equally, to suggest that charities are speaking out about an issue to curry favour with funders risks undermining this vital work, and damaging the role that charities play in our democracy.”
The legislation, which was voted through in Holyrood by 86 votes to 39, follows widespread backing from political parties and is the most consulted upon legislation in the history of the Scottish Parliament.
On Friday, legal charity JustRight Scotland published a statement criticising “recent media and social media commentary” around the independence of charities - including their own.
JustRight Scotland was founded in 2017 as an independent charity that uses the law to defend and extend people’s rights, providing direct legal advice and representation to people across Scotland in areas of law where there are gaps in access to justice.
The statement reads: “This year, we and our third sector partners have provided free, confidential, impartial legal advice to thousands of people, about legal issues that matter to them – ranging from advice and support to women and children fleeing domestic violence, to people facing homelessness and destitution, to people facing sexual harassment in employment or discrimination because of disability.
“Where we choose to raise awareness of a legal issue and to engage in policy and campaigning work, we do so on the basis of the legal cases that people seeking our advice bring to us, and in the interests of the people and communities we work with.
“As a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (SCIO), we follow guidance and requirements of the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR). Our legal services are provided through a Limited Liability Partnership, JustRight Scotland LLP, which has been authorised to act as solicitors, and is regulated, by the Law Society of Scotland.
“The funding we receive, including from Scottish Government, does not prevent or preclude us from criticising Scottish Government policy and practice, nor from challenging the Scottish Government or any other Scottish public authority, through legal action. Indeed, it has been necessary on several occasions for us to do this, and we have done so without hesitation.
“JustRight Scotland is proud of its work to defend and extend people’s rights using the law. We will continue to further our charitable purposes through legal advice and representation, influencing and engaging with policy and legislative processes, providing training and information about rights, and all of our other charitable activities.”
Former Scottish Labour leader and a trustee of multiple Scottish charities, Kezia Dugdale, wrote in response to the Times’ story that the organisations who authored the open letter hold “steel and commitment” for the “rights of all women and girls”.
She added: “It is at best astonishingly patronising and at worst a grave insult to suggest that they wouldn’t be supporting this bill were it not for the funding they receive from a Scottish government that insists they are trans-inclusive. They understand power and the abuse of it. It is their trade. They would resign on the spot if they felt they were being bought.”
The Times was approached for comment.