Wednesday, 25 June 2014
Wrong way for Charity Commission.
The Charity Commission's new consultation, released last week, includes a proposal from MPs that will increase the administrative burden on charities and increase what many think is over-regulation in our sector.
In September the Government accepted "in principle" a recommendation from the Public Administration Select Committee that charities' annual returns to the Commission should state how much they spend on campaigning. It said it would first ask charities to take the initiative themselves in being more transparent about their political activities, and then explore with the Commission the possibility for extra information "to be captured and disclosed in a proportionate way through existing processes."
But now the Charity Commission – with its announcement this week of the proposal, subject to consultation, that charities should indeed from next year have to say in their returns how much they spend on campaigning (and how much they receive from government sources) – has ignored this and gone ahead with a blunderbuss approach. What happened to the "first step" and the use of existing processes? Clearly the Commission are not interested in that.
The Commission is pushing ahead with the Select Committee’s recommendation more forcefully than the Cabinet Office envisaged or is desirable.
Looking at the Public Administration Select Committee’s minutes it is clear this recommendation may have stemmed more from the opinions of some of its own members than from the evidence presented to it by witnesses. It goes further even than Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs, hardly the greatest supporter of charity campaigning. He concedes that it is ‘fairly arbitrary’ to distinguish campaigning from other charity activities.
The Committee’s report also seems to confuse ‘campaigning’ and ‘political and communications work’, which suggests that they treat the terms as interchangeable.
Let's be very clear as a sector about what is going on here. There is a clear element in the Commission who believe that we need to 'stick to the knitting'. The fact that the campaigning and advocacy work of charities is inextricably linked to our work at the front line appears to escape them. To take one obvious example, look at RNIB's fantastic work for almost 150 years, both supplying a wide range of services for people with sight loss and agitating for numerous government policies to make their lives better. It is illogical and unnecessary to separate the two functions.
And what is worse is that this intervention into a political debate detracts from the work the Commission should be doing on sector regulation. With Paula Sussex starting as their new Chief Executive next week they have an excellent opportunity for new energy in pursuing this goal.
But for now, perhaps the Commission themselves should stick to the knitting, and avoid clamping down on the historic role and duty of charities to speak truth to power.