Friday 29 August 2014

Charities speak for their beneficiaries, never for political parties.

A recent story in the Times, and picked up by the Daily Mail, highlights the attempts by the Charity Commission to make us declare spend on political campaigning.

It has been roundly criticised across the sector and I trust the Commission will now drop these proposals. We would be very happy to discuss with the Commission how we , as a sector,  can make our accounting more transparent and work with them on the trend towards impact reporting which demonstrates to the public the impact of their donations.

It's impact that matters , not the sterile reporting of where money is spent. This is where we can tell the story of what we do with the money we receive , whether from government contracts or from the public or corporate donors. We should have a common position with the regulator on how we tell that story – but unfortunately we have got divisive proposals that add more red tape at best and at worst make us suspicious that the real purpose of the Commission is ideological not regulatory.

When prominent members of the Commission are publicly quoted criticising our essential role in campaigning then it is hardly surprising we suspect the intentions of these proposals. Let’s hope that the many submissions that have been made to them will bear fruit and a rethink in how we do this.

Meanwhile let me reproduce the letter I wrote to the Times yesterday which makes our case concisely.

Sir, Stephen Pollard (Aug 26) suggests that charities’ campaigning is partisan, and that they are not transparent. For centuries charities have spoken out against injustice and suffering. In law, charities have a duty to work to alleviate the problems they tackle, and to try to prevent them arising at all. Charity law reflects this by allowing them to speak out on “political” issues in line with their mission.

The Charity Commission recently proposed requiring charities to declare how much they spend on “political campaigning”. A drive toward greater transparency is good for charities and good for society — and most if not all are working to be highly transparent.

However, the attempt to separate “political” campaigning from their other work is at best illogical. At worst, it panders to an infantilised debate that gives the false impression that campaigning is an optional extra to a charity’s work with beneficiaries.

Charity campaigning may be political but this does not make it partisan. Those in power are entitled to object to what is said, but not to charities’ right to say it. Charities speak for their beneficiaries, never for political parties.

The commission’s proposals must be seen in the context of the government’s Lobbying Act and of other attacks on civil society’s right to speak truth to power. It is no surprise that charity leaders speak out in defence of their beneficiaries. We should be glad of it. Society and our democracy would certainly be poorer if charities were muzzled.

Sir Stephen Bubb

Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations

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