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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

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The third sector won’t be silenced, so just deal with it

This opinion piece is almost 8 years old
 

Susan Smith argues the latest attack on civil society groups that criticise government has gone too far and other politicians must speak out

The third sector once again came under attack this week from another UK minister, this time justice secretary Chris Grayling.

In an attempt to undermine civil society and its freedom to criticise government policy, Grayling suggested the third sector think tanks and some charities, specifically naming 38 Degreesand the Howard League, are full of left-wing professional campaigners who “spread scare stories that are often exaggerated or wholly untrue”.

His evidence is that a number of former Labour members and special advisers worked for charities and left-wing think tanks. The irony of a government minister suggesting that simply being a member of the political class makes you a liar is clearly lost on Grayling.

It also leads to the question of how he would respond to concerns that the link between the private sector and Tory MPs pre and post election suggests a conspiracy to infiltrate government with right-wing ideals.

Speaking in a national newspaper in language reminiscent of a totalitarian regime, Grayling went on to accuse professional campaigners of deliberately trying to undermine the government’s economic plans

Speaking in a national newspaper in language reminiscent of a totalitarian regime, Grayling went on to accuse professional campaigners of deliberately trying to undermine the government’s economic plans.

This is the latest in a series of attacks from the UK government on freedom of speech that is quite simply frightening. That the UK Lobbying Act, designed to prevent big business from buying politicians’ votes in parliament, is now more famous for its potential to silence charities is a sign of how far askew things have gone.

Scottish politicians have so far not jumped on the civil society bashing bandwagon, distracted as they are by the big September question. However, despite a recent call from SCVO, few MSPs have been forthcoming in their support for the sector’s right to criticse government.

Our society is stronger and better as a result of civil society groups holding the state to account. With our modern media struggling to find a new voice following the demise of its business model, it is has never been more important for charities, trade unions, faith bodies, and all independent non-governmental organisations to have the freedom to report on injustice in our communities. These groups also continue to be best placed to suggest new and innovative approaches to social problems.

As the Howard League’s Frances Crook says, if criticism is unpalatable to politicians that is “just tough”.

Whatever happens in September, politicians who support a free, open and democratic process must start to speak out in defence of it, otherwise they may find themselves living in a country where that right has been forgotten.

 

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