Charities and politics

A charity is allowed to engage in politics. A charity is not allowed to do party-political campaigning.

The distinction is made clearest whenever there’s an election. If a charity wants to comment on any one party’s manifesto, they have to comment on them all. They may possibly just get away with only commenting on the five major parties – the ones with seats in Parliament – but they cannot pick and choose.

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations is a registered charity. Their mission is “To support people to take voluntary action to help themselves and others, and to bring about social change.” In February 2011 they produced their own manifesto for the Scottish parliamentary elections:

The manifesto drives home how Scotland’s 45,000 voluntary organisations are already playing a critical role in communities across the country, enabling people to do more to help themselves and each other. From housing associations to social care providers, through to overseas aid projects and community sports and arts groups, the third sector touches the lives of thousands of Scots every day.

SCVO has 1300 members – that is, a little less than 3% of the voluntary organisations in Scotland pay the membership fee to SCVO.

Martin Sime has been chief executive of SCVO since 1991.

In April 2011, the SCVO published analyses of the manifestos of the five main Scottish parties, and they’re all still available on their website:

Martin Sime also provided a comment to the media on four out of the five party manifestos. (SCVO may not have been asked for a comment on the Scottish Green manifesto, which was, as I recall, published very late, within two weeks of the May election.) The only comment that was wholly positive was on the Conservative manifesto.

  • On the Labour manifesto:
  • “We are disappointed that this manifesto shows little support for the idea of co-production – putting service users at the heart of pubic service design and delivery – and a stronger commitment could have been made to focus funding on preventative services.

  • On the LibDem manifesto:
  • “But we’re disappointed to see that their work and training programme won’t deliver real jobs for young and long-term unemployed people. Instead it focuses on unpaid work experience and internships … This manifesto’s proposals are a missed opportunity to use that expertise and help thousands to get back on the jobs ladder.”

  • On the SNP manifesto:
  • However we do have concerns about how the SNP proposes to balance national priorities with local delivery, especially in the context of an extended council tax freeze.

The point of writing this kind of analysis of party manifestos, for a charity, is to provide information that may be of use to people who support your mission – most of whom won’t be SCVO members. If someone wants to write to the candidates for Parliament and ask them what they plan to do for the voluntary sector if elected, it helps to have had someone go through the manifestos and pick out which bits are relevant.

The comments by Martin Sime for the media are an easy way for journalists or information officers to publicise the party manifesto analyses. They are not party politicking: regardless of Sime’s personal preference, he can and should only comment on what the manifesto actually says about matters within the SCVO’s remit.

On 11th May 2012, Unite Scotland published a poll carried out in March to which 1700 of their members had responded.

Pat Rafferty, the Unite Scottish Secretary, said

Since the starting pistol was fired on our constitutional future we’ve heard a lot of political bluster and squabble. That’s not good enough because this referendum has significant transformative potential for our democracy whether you are pro-devolution, pro-independence or pro-union.

This process is a marathon, not a sprint, and as the Scottish Government consultation closes politicians must now listen to the people to ensure that all views are incorporated into this referendum.”

The Future of Scotland campaign is an alliance of organisations ranging from Faith in Community Scotland to the STUC, and including SCVO.

In the first half of June, the Future of Scotland group commissioned an Ipsos MORI survey. The survey polled 1,003 members of the public between 7 and 13 June. Future of Scotland said in their media release on 25th June:

We wanted to ask ordinary members of the public – not politicians – what they thought about the future of Scotland, the constitutional debate thus far, and some of the key issues still up for debate. It should be noted that none of the results reflect the views of the campaign itself. It is a temperature check on the views of the public.
Key findings:

On 14th June, Alex Bell, formerly director of allmediascotland and now “special adviser” to Alex Salmond, sent an email to Martin Sime. The email consisted of a link to the Unite poll report and two words:

Read this.

This email was leaked on 13th August, and has been widely interpreted as proof that Alex Salmond is intriguing behind-the-scenes to have a two-question referendum. I think he probably is, and I said so on 1st August, without benefit of any leaked emails.

On 26th June, SCVO launched a survey of its members on the Future of Scotland campaign:

SCVO is consulting with its members. We want your views on the future of Scotland and how it should be governed. This is your opportunity to share your thoughts on what the Scottish referendum debate and the future of Scotland means for you and your organisation.

On 1st August 2012, Francis Stuart blogged on the SCVO site about a poll commissioned by the Future of Scotland campaign:

The results are fascinating. Over two thirds of the people have yet to take any part in the debate on Scotland’s future. Over half view the economy and jobs as the most important issue facing Scotland compared to only 16% for independence.

People favour a safe, prosperous and caring Scotland over a powerful Scotland which protects its borders. And there is majority support for extensive devolution of further powers.

On 15th August, two days after the email from Alex Bell to Martin Sime was leaked, Willie Rennie called for Martin Sime’s resignation as chief executive of SCVO:

claiming that the SCVO had become too closely associated with the SNP. His call came after it emerged that the SCVO was sent an e-mail by the Scottish Government that referred to a second referendum question.

Mr Rennie said: “Martin Sime’s behaviour is threatening the independence and credibility of the SCVO. I have suspected for some time that he was working closely with the SNP government on the referendum but now we have hard evidence.

“Martin Sime is displaying poor judgment and should consider his position as chief executive of SCVO.”

I considered this frankly absurd, and meant to write a blog about it earlier, but got distracted by Knightsbridge.

Alison Elliot, convenor of SCVO, wrote in response to Willie Rennie rejecting his call for Sime’s resignation, and noting:

Special advisers from all the main political parties, including your own, have been in dialogue with SCVO in recent months; that is their job. We welcome these conversations and engage in them vigorously from our perspective as a civil society organisation that has an interest, on behalf of our members, in contributing to policies that shape the environment in which the third sector works. We are quite clear about the grounds on which we base our arguments; they are formed by the work and concerns of our members, not by any party political stance.

Today via MikeDailly, I found he had blogged today that

The difficulty with Mr Sime’s proclamations on behalf of his employer is that they appear to be less about debating public policy, and more about congratulating the SNP and Scottish Government in fairly blatant terms.

He offers as evidence a quote from Martin Sime’s comment for the media:

‘This manifesto is good news for Scotland’s third sector. It proves that the SNP have really listened to the needs and aspirations of charities and voluntary organisations, particularly around community empowerment and procurement’.

He does not link to the SCVO web page, or acknowledge that Martin Sime said equally positive things about:

  • Conservatives
  • “It’s great to see the Scottish Tories addressing the concerns of charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises in their manifesto and not simply paying lip service to the idea of the big society.”

  • LibDems
  • “The Scottish Liberal Democrats clearly understand the issues faced by charities and voluntary organisations and this manifesto contains some strong ideas on how to address them. We particularly welcome the focus on prevention and early intervention – something that the third sector excels at and which could save substantial sums for the public purse.”

  • Labour
  • “It’s evident from their manifesto that Scottish Labour values the work of charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises. Their proposals on reforming commissioning processes show that they understand that change is needed to open up the potential of the third sector to deliver excellent public services.”

MikeDailly offers as further evidence that Martin Sime issued this press statement:

‘The unprecedented win for the SNP shows a dramatic shift in our political landscape … At SCVO we welcome the positive campaign that the SNP has run and we believe that the third sector offers equally positive solutions to the challenges ahead’. Congratulating a political party in such terms before and after an election might not be seen by some as neutral or wise for a charity.

Again, he does not link to the press statement, which was posted to the SCVO website on Friday 6th May 2011 at 5:49 pm, and which reads in full:

“The unprecedented win for the SNP shows a dramatic shift in our political landscape. But after a campaign that postponed the hard choices, there is now much for the new majority Government to do – from delivering stronger more sustainable communities by harnessing the renewable energy revolution to fundamentally reforming our public services with the third sector at their heart.

“At SCVO we welcome the positive campaign that the SNP has run and we believe that the third sector offers equally positive solutions to the challenges ahead. Our sector has creative, dedicated and resourceful people, determined to make a difference to the lives of the people of Scotland. We believe that the third sector and Government can achieve our shared ambitions and be stronger together for the future.”

The press release, in full, is not about praising the SNP – it’s about reminding the new government what their committments are and praising the third sector (and indirectly, the SCVO).

That the SNP’s win was unprecedented is literally true: the Scottish Parliament was indeed devised to try to ensure that no party would ever win a majority. That the SNP’s winning a second election showed a “dramatic shift in our political landscape” is also true: the SNP had committed to holding an independence referendum in the second half of the Scottish Parliament if they won in 2011, and they did and it has. That the SNP ran a “positive campaign” means, in political-speak, that they campaigned by boosting their policies rather than by attacking their opponents.

And the SCVO communications department would have written an equally positive press release about whichever parties had formed the Scottish government – it just happened to be the SNP. (I don’t work for the SCVO and have not been leaked the unfinished drafts of the press releases written to celebrate a new Lib/Lab coalition, or in wilder fantasy Scottish Greens forming a minority government. But there’s literally no evidence for an SCVO special preference for SNP.)

We had a conversation on Twitter, and I was asked:

As I noted above: SCVO does consult its membership, and while their membership consititutes a tiny minority of all the third sector organisations in Scotland, they do endeavour to research and to provide resources to third sector organisations whether or not they are members. They have as good a right to speak out about political issues affecting third sector organisations as Stonewall Scotland does to speak about issues affecting LGBT people in Scotland, despite their membership being a tiny proportion of the sector.

Crowdsourcing views about the party manifestos from the membership before producing a report is an extremely attractive idea, but problematic because parties don’t publish their manifestos on the same schedule and valid crowdsourcing takes time. To be useful, an analysis of a party manifesto must be published far enough before the election to give people who want to use the analyses time to read and to write to the candidates.

Both Scottish Green and SNP (as I recall) were late with their manifestos in 2011: SCVO published their analyses of Labour, LibDem, and Conservative in the first week in April, and SNP and Green nearly three weeks later. To insist that the SCVO invite 45,000 organisations (or even 1,300 members) to provide their views on each party’s manifesto before the SCVO are allowed to publish an analysis, would effectively silence the SCVO on party manifestos.

There is no evidence that I have seen that Martin Sime is an SNP partisan. The independence referendum is a happening which needs to be discussed. People’s views will most likely not helpfully correspond to party political doctrine. It is the role of organisations like SCVO and Unite, with memberships that range across the party political spectrum (my aged great-aunt, a Tory to her backbone, was a strong believer in union membership) to find out what their members and supporters actually think.

As Alison Elliot noted, special advisers from all parties contact the SCVO. Alex Bell’s email to Martin Sime is neither improper for Alex Bell to write nor Martin Sime to receive: the chief executive of the SCVO shouldn’t be required to treat emails from political employees as if they were spam.

To argue on the basis of highly selective quotes that Martin Sime is party-politicking is to falsify the evidence. To say that the chief executive of SCVO must make no comment on party manifestos until he has consulted with 45,000 organisations across Scotland, and that SCVO mustn’t publish information received from polls and surveys with regard to the independence referendum, is an argument that silences SCVO in politics.

That is not acceptable.

Returning to the Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by the Future of Scotland campaign:

  • 71% of people don’t think politicians have encouraged them to engage in the debate about Scotland’s future
  • 69% of people still have not had any involvement in the debate
  • 68% of people want to have a wider debate about Scotland future considering all possible alternatives for the future – support is equally strong among those who support independence (66%) and those who oppose it (66%)

These are serious matters. My own political views don’t fit neatly into a party slot: I won’t join either Better Together or Yes Scotland because I’m undecided about either: I feel that neither campaign is really interested in finding out what I think, but only how they can get me to vote in 2014. And from this poll, there’s a lot of people out there who think the same.

Twisting and distorting SCVO’s views by selectively quoting or by any other means does not contribute to the debate.


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