Written evidence from ACEVO, Bond, Quakers in Britain, the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, and Shelter (CDR 25)
Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee
The Government’s Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission
Question 1: What form should the Commission take?
a. How should it be composed?
- The appointment process for the Commission should be open and transparent. Changes made as a result of its recommendations could affect every citizen for many years to come. It must therefore be as independent as possible, and its overall composition should be party-political neutral.
- The Commission will examine issues affecting civil society, so a representative of civil society should sit on the Commission.
b. Should the Commission engage the public, and if so how?
- We would like the Commission to engage with civil society and the wider public through a meaningful, inclusive and deliberative engagement process. As part of this, the Commission should invite and carefully consider written and oral evidence from civil society. It could also consider using deliberative processes such as citizen assemblies, which have proved successful in other European countries such as the Republic of Ireland in considering constitutional questions.
- The Commission should make a particular effort to reach out to marginalised groups such as disabled people, people from migrant backgrounds, young people, and people from Black, Asian and minoritised ethnic (BAME) backgrounds to ensure their opinions are considered. It should actively consider how government, parliament and the courts can become more inclusive in relation to these groups.
c. How should the Commission proceed in its work? Over what timescale?
- The work of the Commission must be transparent. The timescale should be sufficiently long for proper consultation and analysis to take place.
Question 2: What should be the main purpose and output of the Commission?
- The main purpose of the Commission should be to engage with citizens and civil society about issues related to our constitution, democracy and rights and recommend action to the government based on its findings.
a. How should the Commission report its findings?
- In a transparent way that is accessible to all sections of society.
Question 3: Given the remit of the Commission to look at “the broader aspects of our constitution” and “come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates” are there issues not on the Government’s list that need to be examined?
- We believe the Commission should examine restrictions on civic space, including civil society campaigning. The UK has joined a list of 12 European countries in which civic space is now rated as ‘narrowed’. Laws, policies, practices and public narratives are all contributing to the gradual silencing of civil society.
- Civil society campaigning is a vital part of our democracy. Charities and other civil society organisations (CSOs) have played a vital role during and prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. They highlight issues affecting marginalised groups and help the government to improve legislation, policy and practice.
- During the pandemic, for example, CSOs have helped reduce rough sleeping, improve care during pregnancy and birth, and protect survivors of domestic violence and abuse. Notable examples from before the pandemic include campaigning to: make it easier for disabled people to access education through amending the Disability Discrimination Act; keep women safe through closing a legal loophole allowing rape in marriage; and reduce plastic bag usage.
- Civil society campaigning allows anger and concern about social issues to be raised in a structured and constructive way. If we want to rebuild a more resilient society after the pandemic and address challenges such as climate change and inequality, it is vital to provide a legitimate means for marginalised communities to bring their challenges to light.
- The government’s approach to civil society also matters on a global stage. A thriving civil society makes the UK a role model. Conversely, attempts to restrict civil society in the UK can be used by repressive regimes to justify their own efforts to limit dissent.
- Despite the importance of civil society campaigning, we have seen increasing limits placed on our ability to engage in the policy-making process. These include:
- Rules on campaigning during elections, particularly joint campaigning rules, the retrospective application of the regulated period, and burden of compliance.
- Use of anti-advocacy clauses in funding contracts.
- Negative tone and rhetoric of the Charity Commission leadership, which suggests charities should not be speaking out and that doing so can undermine public trust. For example Baroness Stowell’s comments about the National Trust.
- Politicians framing action by civil society to defend rights, or change policy and law, as interference or stepping beyond acceptable roles. The Prime Minister’s recent reference to “lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders” is an example of this. Civil society groups are characterised as threats, such as describing Extinction Rebellion as a ‘criminal organisation’ or the Department for Education defining alternatives to capitalism as an ‘extreme political stance’. Linked to this, government ministers have tried to influence charities to act in certain ways, thus compromising their independence. For example Oliver Dowden MP’s recent letter to museums.
- Limits placed on the right to protest by the government, police and private companies. Examples include: the unlawful banning of protests by police; excessive sentencing of peaceful protestors; the use of ‘persons unknown’ injunctions to stop protests; and ‘pay to protest’ incidents.
- Limits on access to justice for ordinary people and the CSOs who advocate on their behalf, including changes to judicial review such as those being discussed by the Independent Review of Administrative Law.
- Poor or limited engagement and consultation practices. There have been several examples in recent years where civil society and the communities they work with have been either excluded from policy and decision-making processes or not given enough time and/or opportunity to participate in meaningful way. This is particularly an issue for small organisations, faith-based groups and/or those who work with marginalised people.
- Taken alone, each of these factors may not seem a significant barrier to civil society campaigning. But the combined effect of current measures and new initiatives is creating an increasingly negative environment, where CSOs are decreasingly willing and able to speak out on behalf of their beneficiaries. SMK’s annual campaigner surveys provide evidence of the impact on CSOs. In 2019, 87% respondents said they thought the legitimacy of campaigning was under threat, down just 6% from the 2018 figure. Respondents reported increasingly negative attitudes to campaigning among politicians and the media.
- We would like the Commission to consider the following potential solutions:
- A renewed commitment to the Compact, as promised in the Civil Society Strategy, would help improve the working relationship between the government and civil society. Government and CSOs should engage constructively and with mutual respect.
- Revise the rules on non-party campaigning, along the lines proposed by Lord Hodgson in his government-commissioned review of Part 2 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. In particular:
- Reduce the regulated period for third-party campaigners to four months before the general election.
- Review and amend the legislation on joint campaigning in consultation with CSOs, to ensure it meets its stated aim without hindering collaboration.
- All government grants and contracts should support the right of CSOs to engage in policy-making and must not place restrictions on advocacy.
- Ensure the Charity Commission and Electoral Commission work to enable a regulatory environment that is proportionate and supports CSOs’ duty and freedom to speak out. The next Chair of the Charity Commission must not be affiliated with a political party and have some experience of the sector they will regulate. The appointment process must be transparent and involve appropriate parliamentary scrutiny and accountability. We would like to see an end to political appointments for public roles in general.
- It is essential the government commits to defending the right to peaceful protest and ensuring that police powers are not being used disproportionately. For many marginalised groups, including some young people who do not have the right to vote, protest is a key way to get their voices heard by policy-makers. Protest is a vital tool for civil society organisations to raise awareness of issues affecting people and planet.
Question 4: What areas should be a priority for the Commission and why?
- The Commission must prioritise the upholding of human rights and civil liberties. It must look at how our democracy can be preserved, with an emphasis on scrutiny, transparency and accountability.
- We are concerned that government rhetoric around “needless delays”, “vexatious claims” and “lefty human rights lawyers and do-gooders” imply that democratic processes aimed at protecting people’s rights are unnecessary inconveniences. We are keen to ensure that the Commission does not pave the way for parliament, the courts, civil society and citizens to be further restricted in their ability to hold government to account, as these checks and balances are vital to our democracy.
- The Commission must also look at how our democracy can be more participatory. The challenges facing our country at the moment, such as the climate crisis and deep-seated inequalities, can only be addressed if we engage all sections of our society in developing and implementing solutions. The Climate Assembly was a good example of participatory democracy, and the government should build mechanisms like this into its key decision-making processes.
- If the Commission decides to look at ‘the ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism and organised crime’, it must consider alternative approaches to security. This includes:
- Looking at a wide range of causes of violence and insecurity, including inequality and climate change.
- Considering how to create cohesive and peaceful communities locally, nationally and internationally.
 This is a joint submission by ACEVO, Bond, Quakers in Britain, the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, and Shelter.
- ACEVO is the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations. It is a membership body of over 1,500 CEOs and senior leaders of civil society organisations working in England and Wales. Through its network ACEVO inspires and supports civil society leaders by providing connections, advocacy and skills.
- Bond is the UK network for organisations working in international development, humanitarian aid and peacebuilding. With our members, we work to strengthen civil society and create an enabling environment, both here in the UK and overseas, which enable us to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals and protect fundamental rights and freedoms.
- Quakers in Britain is a national church and charity working on behalf of 21,575 people who attend 475 Quaker meetings in Britain. Our commitment to peace, equality and justice leads us to care deeply about democracy, human rights and civil liberties.
- At the Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK), our vision is of a more confident and powerful civil society in which people work together to drive social change. We recognise that change often begins in civil society. From it have come better rights and protections, changes in social attitudes, and new ways to support each other, our communities and the natural world.
- Shelter helps millions of people every year struggling with bad housing or homelessness through our advice, support and legal services. And we campaign to make sure that, one day, no one will have to turn to us for help. We’re here so no one has to fight bad housing or homelessness on their own.
- We are members of an informal network of charities and campaign groups, who work together under the name Civil Society Voice to improve the environment for civil society campaigning.
- We believe the Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission will have a significant impact on civil society. We also believe that civil society has a vital role to play in any healthy democracy, alongside the state and private sector. Civil society must therefore be involved in the Commission’s work and the Commission must consider issues affecting civil society’s ability to play that role.
- We would like the Commission to focus on how citizens and civil society can be engaged and involved in democratic decision-making, so that we can tackle the serious challenges facing our country.
 Civicus Monitor (latest update July 2020): https://monitor.civicus.org/country/united-kingdom/
 More information is available in SMK’s report, The Chilling Reality
 More information can be found at: https://acevoblogs.wordpress.com/2019/03/06/campaigning-for-the-removal-of-anti-advocacy-clauses/
 The Compact 2010; Civil Society Strategy 2018, p13 and 71
 More information can be found on Rethinking Security and Quakers in Britain’s peace and justice webpages.