CIVICUS condemns UK government’s attempt to silence civil society

The UK government is receiving widespread condemnation for a new clause in grant agreements that will place restrictions on civil society organisations lobbying the government.

Last week, 140 UK charities signed a joint letter to David Cameron expressing their deep concern over the proposed clause and the move has been strongly condemned by the global alliance of civil society organisations, CIVICUS.

“This move restricts the freedom of expression of UK civil society, and fundamentally reduces the opportunity for the voices of the people who receive the vital support of charities to be heard. Coming from a country with a long tradition of free speech, this is a serious step in the wrong direction for democracy, transparency and human rights. Moreover, it only serves to further stoke up a worrying global trend where governments around the world are trying to silence civil society,” said Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Secretary-General of CIVICUS.

The new clause would be attached to all grants for UK charities, and would prevent charities from using these funds to enter into any dialogue with parliament, government or political parties as funds could only be spent on direct delivery of services and ‘good causes’ - not on activities intended to influence or even to share expert knowledge on social issues.

“For many years, people around the world have come to the UK to learn about our model of civil society engagement, including the role of charities in bringing their expertise to shape policies. This is now under threat and risks undermining the wider principles of democracy and human rights that the UK has long championed,” said Karl Wilding, Public Policy Director of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), the largest umbrella body for the voluntary and community sector in England.

In addition to limiting the space for UK civil society, the clause may also have a negative global impact, as it will be attached to funds received from the UK Department for International Development (DfID). However, how this will affect DfID grant recipients in other countries remains unclear.

Ben Jackson, Chief Executive at Bond, the UK membership body for organisations working in international development, said: "The new rules could limit the valuable role that civil society organisations play in helping to inform government policy. After the Lobbying Act, this worrying clause seems to represent a further attempt to reduce the space that charities have to speak out on issues that concern those they work with around the world. We are keen to understand in more detail how the government envisages that the new rules will work in practice. Many of the details are currently unclear. In particular, we will be working to understand what the implications will be for our members and their work with DfID."

In 2015, CIVICUS reported that freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly were violated to a significant degree in 96 countries. Preliminary research by CIVICUS this year points to threats to civic space in over 100 countries, including in many democracies, the UK and several European countries included.