Government gagging clauses ‘are threatening independent voices’


The former head of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) has warned that the independent voices of disability organisations could be under threat because of gagging clauses attached to government contracts.

Sir Bert Massie, who chaired the DRC throughout its seven years, said it was “worrying” that the government was “gagging” organisations that have signed contracts to provide services.

He pointed to the “superb” Responsible Reform report – published this week by disabled activists – which accused the government of misleading parliament over disability living allowance reform, as a demonstration of why the voluntary sector’s independence was so important.

He said that any charity that decided it was unable to produce such a report because of the risk of annoying the government had immediately been “compromised” by signing a contract to provide services.

He said: “People need to be conscious of this. Independence is very precious. It disappears incrementally.”

Sir Bert said that smaller disabled people’s organisations needed to be just as aware of the threat as the larger national disability charities.

He was speaking as the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector, of which he is a member, produced the first of five annual reports.

The panel said there were “real and present” risks to the independence of the voluntary sector, with the threat heightened as a result of public spending cuts and changes in the way contracts are awarded, while local voluntary organisations “may lack the resources and capacity to assert their independence” in such situations.

They also warned of a “blurring of boundaries” between the public, private and voluntary sectors, which could “dilute” the independence of charities, and lead to some of them becoming “fearful of using their voice”.

Sir Bert pointed to the drift towards charities being funded by contracts for service-provision, rather than by government grants, and warned of the “temptation to dilute your principles to ensure survival”.

He said: “It seemed to us that quite clearly there is a risk to independence of some of the activities that these charities are engaging in.”

He accused the government of forcing charities that signed such contracts to promise not to criticise government policy.

He said: “First of all, it is not the government’s money. You should be quite free to criticise the government because that is part of the democratic process.”

He added: “It is worrying that the government believe it is their money which can only be used to promote their policies and the price is to gag the organisation. People should be free to speak. A strong government should not be afraid of being criticised.”

The panel closely examined arrangements under the government’s Work Programme, in which it said voluntary organisations have ended up as sub-contractors to private sector companies, with limited influence over the “quantity or quality of their work”.

10 January 2012