Charities have been silenced from speaking out about the Conservative social care plans despite believing they will be hugely damaging to elderly and disabled people across the country, it has been claimed.
One chief executive of a major charity in the social care sector told the Guardian they felt “muzzled” by legislation, introduced in 2014, which heavily restricts organisations from intervening on policy during an election period.
They said Theresa May’s decision to means test winter fuel allowance would inadvertently result in some of the poorest pensioners in the country losing the support, adding that “will literally cost lives”.
Sir Stephen Bubb, who runs the Charity Futures thinktank but previously led Aveco, an umbrella organisation for voluntary organisations, said it was notable how quiet his sector had been about the policy.
“The social care proposals strike at the heart of what charities do but they should be up in arms about them but it hasn’t happened. It is two problems: there is the problem of the so-called ‘gagging act’, but also the general climate of hostility towards charities means there is a lot of self censorship,” he said.
“Charities that once would have spoken out are keeping quiet and doing a disservice to their beneficiaries. They need to get a bit of a grip.”
The Electoral Commission said the legal test for charities was whether their spending on an activity could be reasonably regarded as intended to influence people to vote for a political party, and stressed that organisations could register as a non-party campaigner.
Meanwhile, a decision to include a person’s personal property in an assessment for how much they will pay towards social care in the home – dubbed the “dementia tax” – could stop people accessing the care they need.
“We are ready to speak out at one minute past midnight on 9 June,” the charity leader added, but stressed they were too afraid to do so now.
Some fear charities face a permanent “chilling effect” after the Electoral Commission said they must declare any work that could be deemed political over the past 12 months to ensure they are not in breach of the Lobbying Act.
But Bubb said the self-censorship was to do with the way the government had reacted to charities speaking out in the past.
He cited the decision by May to hit out at the British Red Cross after its chief executive claimed his organisation was responding to a “humanitarian crisis” in hospitals and ambulance services.
The prime minister accused the organisation of making comments that were “irresponsible and overblown”.
“That was a warning shot,” said Bubb. “So many charity leaders do feel that if they do speak out there will be some form of comeback on them. The Charity Commission has been notably absent in defending charity rights to campaign – the climate has been hostile to the charity voice.”
A second senior figure in the charity sector also said they were too afraid to speak out on the social care proposals. “We are all scared of the lobbying act and thus most of us are not saying much during the election. There was the same problem in the EU referendum – if you criticise the government then you are being political.”
During the referendum a row broke out after the Charity Commission issued guidelines that some charities interpreted as preventing them from making pro-EU arguments.
The head of the organisation, William Shawcross, dismissed the charge by Margaret Hodge MP that his Euroscepticism was to blame for the issuing of the advice from the commission on when charities could intervene on the issue.
This year, Greenpeace became the first organisation to be fined under the act after failing to register as a “third-party campaigning organisation” in the run-up to the 2015 election.
Steve Reed, the shadow minister for civil society, said the Labour party would scrap the lobbying act because it had “effectively gagged” charities.
“Here is this disastrous U-turn on social care and we are not hearing much from the charities that are working on the ground with older people and those with dementia because the Tories have shut them up. They’ve been banned from pointing out the negative consequences of government policy,” he said.
He argued that advocacy groups were not being allowed to advocate on behalf of the vulnerable people they worked with.
The Liberal Democrat health spokesman, Norman Lamb, agreed, claiming the legislation had caused an “extraordinary chilling effect on charities’ willingness to challenge government”, which was “particularly pernicious during an election”.
He concurred with the charity chief executive that the “big risk with high charges for home care were that people would be fearful of spending money on it, and a proportion will do without or take on less care than they need”. Lamb argued that the policy and the combination of the reduction in the winter fuel allowance was “immensely challenging”.
A Tory source said: “We are going to consult very widely on these changes in policy to avoid unintended consequences – we want to take into account views of people who use services, charities, stakeholder and so on and that will happen after the election period.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010