Charities, Know Your Place!

By Hannah Cook (Staff Writer)

We are now less than one month away from what looks likely to be a nail bitingly close election. Incumbent and prospective MPs are fighting on doorsteps for even the safest of seats, and heated talks of ideology and alliances, coupled with squabbles over leadership debates and lampooning of mind blanks, are playing out in the national media.

With all parties seeking to engage with the electorate and define their political brand, elections present a valuable opportunity for groups to have their agendas heard by influential figures, and among such groups are, controversially, charities.

Take Cats Protection, for example. Whilst not a name that would immediately spring to mind as a major political player, in January this year the charity launched their ‘Manifesto for Cats’ at a Westminster reception hosted by the Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, Neil Parish. The manifesto sets out a 10 point call to action for the new government, demanding that they put in place policy designed to offer greater protection for cats in the UK. Speaking about the event, Jacqui Cuff, Advocacy Manager at Cats Protection, stated that,

"Many MPs are cat owners and are concerned about animal welfare, and we’re delighted that so many have accepted the invitation to our manifesto launch event. A YouGov poll last year found that 14 per cent of voters considered animal welfare to be an important issue in deciding who they would vote for, so it’s possible that MPs’ support for the manifesto could play a part in people’s voting decisions."[i]

This is just one of a number of events that have taken place over the past few months, events at which charities seek to leverage their public support and credibility for favourable consideration of their policy asks, and commitments to action from those seeking to form the new government. But whether charities should be dedicating time and resources to such activities is a controversial topic, and increased activity in the run up to the election has reignited debates about whether charities have become too political.

As Andy Elvin, Chief Executive at the charity Children and Families Across Borders, highlights, regardless of whether campaigning is central to the work of a charitable organisation, it is likely that they will engage in some form of lobbying or advocacy activities[ii]. The Charity Commission too, in their guidance, recognises “that campaigning and political activity can be legitimate and valuable activities for charities to undertake in furtherance of their purposes”[iii], with the caveat that such activities must be in accordance with the wider regulatory framework for UK charities, including a stipulation that work must be in line with the stated aims of the organisation, and they should not undertake activities that seek to influence the view of the public with regards to a particular political party.

Despite such official guidance, however, there are those who see charities engaging in campaigning and political activity as a distraction from their true purpose. For example, Conservative MP Brooks Newmark, who in September 2014, during his brief time as Minister for Civil Society, used his first major speech to criticise charities for their campaigning activities, claiming that such work diverted their attention away from helping people. He suggested that

“The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others.”[iv]

These comments quickly garnered criticism from across the charity sector, with Frances Crook, CEO of the Howard League for Penal Reform, branding his statement both insulting and sexist. This perhaps taps into widespread public misconceptions about charities and their work. While the various objectives of charities vary enormously, the common theme which binds them all is that they seek to make change happen. Whether that change is for the personal circumstances of a group of individuals, the protection from threats for a particular place, or legal and regulatory reform at the national or international level, each organisation will have their own theory of change; a conceptual model that identifies how and why the situation their work seeks to address comes about, and how the charity can, through its work, prevent or remedy these circumstances.

It is for this reason that, while a charity may not explicitly exist as a campaigning organisation, if particular behaviours and legislation are identified as contributory factors to the problem at hand, engaging with relevant actors or decision makers and seeking to change the behaviours and legislation they create can be seen as very much in line with their charitable objectives. Rather than seeing this as a diversion of funds away from service delivery, I would argue that without addressing structural causes in this way, even the best charities can provide little more than a sticking plaster to deeper problems.

It appears, however, that Newmarks’ views are shared by his government colleagues, who in 2014 successfully passed the ‘Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act’ which placed additional pressure on charities with regards to the governance of their campaigning arrangements. The Act reduced the maximum amount that charities are able to spend on ‘regulated activities’, before they are obliged to register with the Electoral Commission as non-party campaigners, and widened the definition of what such activities might include.[v] Last summer guidance was made available giving more detail on what constitutes a regulated activity, but many in the sector have found the materials impenetrable and confusing, causing a number of organisations to reduce their campaigning activity so as not to fall foul of the law. As the Chief Executive of ACEVO, Sir Stephen Bubb stated,

"We were told that government wanted more transparency and not to limit charities’ ability to speak out in public. Now the Electoral Commission’s guidance leaves charities, social enterprises and campaign groups none the wiser as to how to avoid criminal prosecution around some areas of the law.”[vi]

It isn’t hard to see that - given the lack of consultation on the initial bill, and the lack of clear guidance around its implementation - the Acts ultimate aim of making charities more fearful of speaking out and engaging in political debate has been achieved. Rather than a move that will encourage charities to return to their pure roots, as its supporters claim, I believe that this Act represents a suppression of the primary duty of a charity, which is to speak out on the issues on which they are mandated by their supporters to speak. On this I agree with the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, who, in discussing the Act, stated that,

“this is just another crude gerrymander to hobble Labour and gag the government's most dangerous potential critics – charities more trusted by the public than any political party.”[vii]

In a testament to the campaigning spirit of the charity sector, however, the very Act that sought to suppress the voice of charities has, itself, become the subject of a pre-election campaign, with over 150 charitable organisations writing, in February of this year, to leaders of the eight largest political parties, calling on them to repeal the Act in the first session of parliament, following the May election[viii]. At the time of writing the campaign has gained some success, with Labour committing to “end the gagging law”[ix], and reform the regulatory framework for charities, stating that, “the health of our democracy depends on people's right to campaign on the issues they care about.” [x]