Do you realise that the result of the EU Referendum will be announced in Manchester? Must admit, that one had passed me by in the midst of a lot of noise which is supposedly the national debate. Campaigning has only just officially started but of course it’s been going on for months if not years already. There’s a lot of media coverage about the political positioning and opinions being hurled back and forth in speeches. There are fairly regular “sector” positions reported in the media too on both sides – particularly the voice of business leaders.
For the local voluntary sector, it’s difficult to judge how to act on this: we all have a personal opinion but do we have a legitimate role to express it as organisations? The rules around charity engagement in politics and the general media attention paid to our sector recently alongside the Lobbying Act and the stories of use of “gagging clauses” in grant agreements might make you uncertain and the controversy over the Charity Commission’s guidance has hardly helped. The general tone seems to be that unless you can prove it is directly relevant to your organisation, you should not get involved. (Link to the guidance below)
....Or at least that’s one message. Today it’s been reported that the Minister for Civil Society says charities should “feel free” to engage in the referendum debate and campaign so long as it’s not party political.
I’ve been trying to follow this and frankly I’m a bit confused now. So, I’m going to set out my own thoughts in the hope that this might help organisations make up their mind about their position.
Where I start from is that one thing we definitely should be doing, as with any part of our democracy, is encouraging and supporting people to make their voices heard and to be actively involved – particularly those seldom-heard or marginalised voices, many of whom are the people we work with most. So we need to promote involvement. To do that, you need some facts to consider - see links below.
A couple of months ago Macc was asked to give a statement to one campaign group (I won’t say for which side) so I had a discussion with our Trustees about how to respond. We felt simply saying “no comment” was not enough but at the time we didn’t think it was in our power to promote a particular side of the debate. The only way we could think to respond was to state some of the things we believe people should take into account when reaching their own conclusion. Here’s what we came up with:
In the context of the expected EU referendum, Macc's main role will be to encourage local people and community groups to be informed, debate and consider their views and participate in the democratic process. Even within our relatively small organisation, our trustees, staff, volunteers, colleagues and members have a wide range of views on the EU.
We note that some legislation enacted at an EU level protects the rights of disadvantaged and marginalised individuals: Macc has strongly supported the Human Rights Act and we would not wish to see that undermined.
We also support the principle of greater collaboration between communities and nations as a way of tackling inequality, maintaining peace and addressing climate change: moving towards a more inclusive and sustainable economic model for human civilisation.
All institutions are flawed and so there is always scope for improvement. While the EU has created opportunities for increasing social action in our local communities, it can and often does seem remote from where those actions are taking place. Macc's core purpose is that people should have real influence over the place and communities in which they live. In a city which is at the forefront of a devolution agenda, the referendum debate will be an opportunity to raise questions about what the relationship between the EU institutions, our fellow EU member states and the people of Manchester could be in future.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, there will be an effect on the work of the local voluntary, community and social enterprise sector and the people they work with. Macc will continue to support and represent the sector to our best ability.
Now since we wrote that, the guidance and the debate have moved on. I think it’s interesting to note that Manchester has taken the lead in the UK Cities Campaign against “Brexit” http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/european-union-brexit-referendum-campaign-10921595
Below are some links and resources which can help you think through your organisation’s position. If you’ve any views on this please use the comment form below. I’m interested to see whether there is an overall view within the local VCSE sector.
- Charity Commission blog + EU referendum guidance: https://charitycommission.blog.gov.uk/2016/03/23/three-questions-answered-on-our-eu-referendum-guidance/
- GM Chamber of Commerce resources on the EU Referendum: http://www.gmcceuref.co.uk/
- Full Fact are factchecking all the statements and claims made in the media: https://fullfact.org/europe/
- Guide to MPs' declared voting intentions: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/ng-interactive/2016/feb/23/how-will-your-mp-vote-in-the-eu-referendum
- BBC "All you need to know about the EU referendum" http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-32810887
- NCVO Discussion Paper for Charities: https://www.ncvo.org.uk/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/1334-ncvo-discussion-paper-explores-implications-of-eu-membership-for-charities
There are numerous campaign groups on both sides of the debate of course but the two official ones are:
- Britain Stronger in Europe: http://www.strongerin.co.uk
- Vote Leave: http://www.voteleavetakecontrol.org/
Comment on VCSE sector involvement
- The Charity Commission’s guidance on the EU Referendum sets the wrong tone by Elizabeth Chamberlain, NCVO: http://blogs.ncvo.org.uk/2016/03/07/the-charity-commissions-guidance-on-the-eu-referendum-sets-the-wrong-tone/
- ACEVO respond to Charity Commission guidance on the EU Referendum: https://www.acevo.org.uk/news/acevo-respond-charity-commission-guidance-eu-referendum
- The EU Referendum is coming! Time for charities to shut up and hide away! by Jay Kennedy, DSC Director of Policy and Research: https://www.dsc.org.uk/content/the-eu-referendum-is-coming-time-for-charities-to-shut-up-and-hide-away/
- Charities' voices are vital to the Brexit debate by Sue Tibballs, Chief Executive at the Sheila McKechnie Foundation: http://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2016/mar/09/brexit-charities-eu-referendum-commission?CMP=ema-1695&CMP=
- Minister for Civil Society says Charities should feel free to campaign on EU referendum, Third Sector: http://www.thirdsector.co.uk/charities-feel-free-campaign-eu-referendum-says-rob-wilson/governance/article/1391625