andy Frain 120

Andy Frain

Former Campaigns and Public Affairs Manager

Charities Aid Foundation

Charities and the legal right to be political

23 April 2021

The charity sector is about as diverse as it is possible to be. It encompasses everything from world-class universities to local foodbanks. There is much to celebrate about this diversity and the pandemic has shown how these disparate voices all play a role in making a positive difference to society.

But for many there is a persistent confusion about what role charities can – and do - play in our society.

Some think the only legitimate function of charities is provide services that address the symptoms of society’s problems. This view excludes advocacy work that attempts to challenge the root causes of those problems in the first place. As the then-Chief Commissioner of the Charity Commission put it in 1979, “the role of the charity is to bind up the wounds of society. To build a new society is for someone else.” Or as former Minister for Civil Society, Brooks Newmark, put it in a more recent 2014 furore over campaigning, charities should “stick to their knitting”.

The latest manifestation of this point comes in the form of reports of a letter to the Charity Commission calling for an investigation into leading race equality think tank Runnymede Trust for "pursuing a political agenda" in their response to the Government’s Sewell Report on race and ethnic disparities.

This follows other recent accusations of politicisation from MPs over the National Trust’s work to understand links to colonialism and racism at its historic properties. The Charity Commission found that the National Trust did not break charity law and that it undertook the project in a considered way after much discussion, including with a panel of its members and in full consultation with its board of trustees.

A proud record

Charity Commission CEO Helen Stephenson wrote about the right of charities to campaign and what they need to consider in doing so.

She wrote: “Charities have a proud record of engaging in public debate from a variety of perspectives, giving a voice to their beneficiaries and highlighting their cause and, in doing so, and ultimately changing society. Not all charities represent causes that are universally supported, but all charities must be independent.”

"Charities have a proud record of engaging in public debate"

Helen Stephenson
CEO, Charity Commission

Silencing legitimate voices

These developments are worrying for charities and the people they seek to help. The criticisms of charities that engage in political advocacy is that they risk damaging public trust in charities.

But the negativity towards charities' legitimate, legal political action from prominent, elected officials itself risks doing that very thing - undermining public trust.

CAF campaigns to change Government policy in a number of areas. Without campaigning organisations like CAF advocating for change, small charities would have no tools to let their voices be heard at a policy level.

These criticisms carry the real risk of silencing those legitimate voices of charities and the millions of beneficiaries they are advocating for. They also signal a lack of understanding of both the current rules governing charities and the rich history of charities engaging in social change efforts in this country.

One of the core principles underpinning the UK’s civil society is the freedom for civil organisations to advocate on behalf of their beneficiaries, and campaign for the change they determine necessary to achieve their charitable mission. In the case of the Runnymede Trust, that mission is to remove the barriers to racial and ethnic disparity. It is on that basis that they are free to disagree with the findings of the Sewell report.

Those who complain to the charities regulator are seeing 'political' as a synonym for 'party political'. There are a web of rules and regulations outlawing charities from directly engaging in party politics, and rightly so. Whilst charities are not allowed to have purely political purposes or motivations, they are allowed to engage in political activity in pursuit of their wider charitable purposes.

Maintaining a healthy democracy

Charities provide vital frontline services but to say that is all they should do is hugely reductive. Just as a doctor fights the symptoms of an illness, they also challenge the root causes and a charity should be empowered to do the same for social issues.

This idea is neither new nor radical. Campaigning for social reform and political change has been part of the lifeblood of philanthropy for at least the last 400 years. Philanthropic organisations have played a vital role in securing many of the key milestones of social progress that have shaped the society we live in today. From the abolition of slavery and the ending of child labour to universal suffrage and the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Anyone, including politicians, can disagree with a charity or its campaigning activity. Whilst the Runnymede Trust is far from alone in challenging the findings of the Sewell Report, their voice is one of hundreds in the campaigning space. To attempt to limit their ability to voice their view is misjudged.

The UK’s diverse and empowered civil society is a national strength. Attempts – borne of disagreement with what a charity is saying - to silence its voice risks diminishing a key tenet of Britain’s considerable soft power. At a time when the UK is forging a new path internationally, it is vital that we continue to lead by example on the global stage. Part of that leadership is recognising the vital role that a pluralistic civil society, and its ability to offer constructive challenge, play in maintaining the health of our democracy.