Three Cheers for Vicky Browning. Fight the DCMS gagging clause.

Here we go again. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport, now the lead Department for civil society, has defended a gagging clause in its Tampon Tax grants programme preventing the money being used for advocacy, awareness raising or campaigning of any kind. Yet this is a grants programme aimed at tackling violence against women and girls, supporting mental health and well being, and reducing drug and alcohol abuse!

Three hearty cheers for ACEVO’s chief executive, Vicki Browning, for demanding the withdrawal of this clause. She explains that awareness-raising and advocacy must be intermingled with practical work when it comes to addressing sensibly these sorts of issues. They thrive in an atmosphere of secrecy and fear behind closed doors. They thrive on ignorance. The voices and experiences of sufferers is an essential ingredient if state agencies and the public are to deal with these matters more successfully. This is completely lost on the hapless spokesperson for DCMS who says:

We are committed to ensuring that taxpayers’ money goes to help good causes and is not used for political lobbying and campaigning”. In a moment of pure farce, the passage in the grant guidelines encouraging applicants to engage in awareness-raising as part of tackling Violence Against Women and Girls is, it turns out, a “mistake” and is going to be withdrawn! The official who included awareness raising as an integral part of the good cause of tackling violence against women and girls was, however, 100 per cent correct and it is the ideologues of gagging who are making the mistake.

It is pure nonsense to suggest that taxpayers’ money does not or should not go to influencing, advocacy and awareness raising in pursuit of Government policy. Many millions of pounds went from DFID under Justine Greening to integrated programmes of work to combat violence against women and enhance women’s rights and opportunities, making her and DFID world leaders and a great force for good. Such work continues. The new Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mordaunt, is particularly keen to expand work in support of disabled people in developoing countries. I am quite sure she will understand that this includes amplifying the voices of disabled people and giving them greater agency and control in influencing the way they are treated by state agencies and others. We shall surely not be returning to the patronising top down charity of Dickensian times where the beneficiary simpers with gratitude and says nothing?

In another Department, Health,  it has long been understood that public health policies are often better promoted by independent charities than by the Man in Whitehall alone. Taxpayers’ money rightly flows via the NHS and via grants to charities into awareness raising of all sorts of diseases and health hazards. It would indeed be rather stupid to say that the only legitimate use of taxpayers’ money is to treat the symptoms and suffering after prevention has failed.

Domestic violence and tackling modern forms of slavery have been causes with which the Prime Minister herself has been very closely associated. In that work she knows very well how vital is the experience and knowledge of actual sufferers, brought to bear on policy and practice alike through the expert testimony of the organisations that work with them. To deny voice and awareness-raising is to impoverish policy and degrade the Government’s admirable efforts to change things for the better.

Setting up a false antithesis between “good works” on the one hand and “political lobbying and campaigning” on the other may be good enough for inexperienced SPADS but not for grown up people in Government, who know that awareness, voice, influencing the decisions and practices of the Police, prison service, social workers, and adjusting the policy frameworks in which they work, is all a fundamental part of tackling the horrible violence, mental suffering and abuse that goes on behind too many closed doors.

The narrow ideology of the gaggers is harmful, the enemy of good policy and the vital role of charities in helping to shape collective decisions and give voice to the excluded.

Vicki, please keep going. DCMS: please think again and do the right thing.

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