In the Government reshuffle which began on 15 September, the previous Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Skills (DCMS) Oliver Dowden MP was replaced by Nadine Dorries MP. At the time of writing, it remained to be seen whether the current Minister for Civil Society, Baroness Diana Barran, would remain in post.
Policy responsibility for charities and civil society remains with DCMS, but the signals coming from Government both in terms of personnel and messaging are increasingly framing the Culture department’s main purpose as the Department for Culture Wars – fighting back against the so-called ‘woke agenda’ and the bogeymen of insufficiently patriotic or alleged left-wing biases in the media, cultural institutions, and wider civil society.
Just days ago, Oliver Dowden published an op ed in The Telegraph (subsequently published on the official government website gov.uk) which made completely flawed arguments about specific charities and the charity sector as a whole and sought to politicise the ongoing appointments process for the next Chair of the Charity Commission. Dowden has been moved to become Minister without Portfolio in the Cabinet Office and Conservative Party co-chairman, reportedly telling staff to prepare for a General Election before 2024.
We will have to see whether the new Minister continues on the same path – we certainly hope not – but we will have an open mind. And regardless of the political leadership of DCMS, DSC and our partners will continue to work constructively with officials to advance important policy matters that affect the charity sector, as we have for the past 18 months. This includes improving cross-government working and awareness about the sector, initiatives of sector-wide reform, and improving evidence and data.
However, if Ministers continue to misinform the public about charities in the press, DSC will continue to challenge them. If they stray beyond their own authority, for example by pressuring the Charity Commission to make politically motivated decisions, or attempting to unlawfully direct the Charity Commission to investigate particular charities, they will face robust and organised opposition.
Charities are independent organisations of civil society, led by volunteers. They do not answer to politicians, government officials, or right-wing newspapers. Full stop.
Charities are accountable to the law as made by Parliament and their regulator is independent of ministerial control and accountable to Parliament for very good and long-established reasons. Ministers do not have any right whatsoever to decide what charities call themselves, or what their ‘core purpose’ or ‘founding missions’ are, individually or collectively.
Charities do not serve Ministers, populist media narratives, or politically-constructed versions of what ‘the public’ is and what it supposedly wants. Charities serve their beneficiaries and the public benefit. This, fundamentally, cannot and must not change.