Political engagement after Covid-19: How will charities fare?

With the process of devolution ever-evolving in a post-Brexit, pandemic-hit world, what do politicians think of charities engaging in the process?
Peter Dawson
 

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, matters surrounding all sectors of our public life and the wider economy will challenge and reshape the policy and priorities of government not just in Westminster but across the devolved nations as well. Across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the respective devolved administrations have acted swiftly in response to charities’ concerns with a range of spending measures and grant schemes directed towards the sector. And with the Scottish and Welsh elections just under a year away, influence on the political sphere will be vital for charities as they deal with the prospect of a changed political landscape. Not only that, we are increasingly seeing lockdown strategies diverging which will require a different approach by charities towards different areas of the UK.

As such there will be strong emphasis on charities to act and adapt their political strategies in these devolved nations. But what can they expect from the devolved institutions during this time? Broadly, our research in these nations has shown much to be encouraged about not just within a political setting but publicly as well.

Public are happy for charities to campaign in devolved legislatures

Last year we found that the public are broadly positive about a charity bringing forth its affairs into the political scene. In 2019, we surveyed members of the public across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and we found that a majority of people across these three nations thought it to be important that a charity has a voice in their respective parliaments.

Chart 1: Public attitudes towards charity political engagement

“To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements about charities?” Ranked by Strongly Agree + Agree

Source: Celtic Charity Awareness Monitor, Jun 19, nfpSynergy | Base: 1,000 adults 16+, Wales

On the other hand, over half of all people surveyed said that some charities are too political and just over a third of people in these three nations said that charities should be allowed to engage in political lobbying. There is clear conflict there as to the role of a charity in the political scene with the message being that engagement is good but being political is not.

But regardless of what the public think, this should never undermine the capacity to influence. Politicians across the devolved nations are supportive of charity lobbying.

Politicians in devolved nations more accepting of charities than Westminster MPs

Our survey of politicians across the devolved institutions in 2019 showed that charities can expect a very receptive environment within the Scottish and Welsh legislatures especially when compared with Westminster (because of Stormont’s suspension, we weren’t able to retrieve data for MLAs on this matter in 2019 but have provided 2014 data for reference).

MSPs, AMs, and MLAs are much more accepting of a charity challenging both government and party policy compared to Westminster (see chart 2). Devolved institutions are also more positive about charities highlighting the effects of a policy on beneficiaries than their Westminster colleagues. On the issue of how acceptable it was for a state funded charity challenging government policy, a vast majority of Welsh Assembly Members and MSPs were in agreement as to the acceptability of this compared to just over half of MPs. This is encouraging from Scotland and Wales in a climate where more charities are accessing government support whether through the £750 million relief package for charities or other options such as furlough.

Chart 2: MPs, MSPs AMs and MLAs acceptability of charitable actions

  

“Please rate how acceptable or unacceptable you find each of the below actions.” Ranked by definitely acceptable + somewhat acceptable

Source: Celtic Charity Parliamentary Monitor, Oct 2014-Nov 2014 & Sept 2019-Nov 2019, nfpSynergy | Base: 40 MSPs, 30 AMs, 42 MLAs / Source: Charity Parliamentary Monitor, Feb/Mar 2020, nfpSynergy  |  Base: 111 MPs

For charities looking to influence the legislative agenda in the devolved nations this is clearly great news for them and expands their capacity to influence outside of Westminster. You certainly don’t have to go far to see some of the success stories in recent years that have come out of campaigning in the devolved assemblies. Just look at LINK partnership’s success in securing the 2010 Marine (Scotland) Act or Keep Wales Tidy’s leading role in making Wales the first nation in the UK to introduce carrier bag charges. More recent successes include British Heart Foundation Scotland’s successful campaign to introduce an organ donation opt-out system, following on from similar successes in the Welsh Assembly in 2015. Such examples (amongst many) show that not only can charities achieve policy success in the devolved institutions but that charities are also major components of innovative policy not seen in any other parts of the UK.

Of course, given that the data above was gathered before the outbreak and subsequent government help in combating the fallout of Covid-19, it will be fascinating to see whether the current pandemic impacts how receptive politicians across the country will continue to be towards charities. The devolved nations have certainly been quick to provide their support as exemplified by the Welsh Government’s third sector response fund of £24m. But could it be the case that politicians in these nations feel they’ve done enough and that their openness to charities challenging them will only go so far in the current climate? Having said that, the reality to many charities is that while help has been offered, it has not gone far enough.

Overall, there is much to be encouraged about for charities operating in the devolved nations. The public are happy for these charities to campaign within a political setting and within the devolved institutions, charity lobbying is welcomed more than in Westminster. With all this in mind, and with the process of devolution ever-evolving in a post-Brexit, pandemic-hit world, now has never been a better time for charities to engage, influence and track perceptions of their work across the devolved legislatures as well as Westminster.

If you’d like to know more about our upcoming research and what politicians in Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont think of your charity then find out more by clicking here or by emailing ccpm@nfpsynergy.net. 

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