Charities, politics, and independence

By Bernadette Meaden
October 2, 2018

The role of charities in the UK seems to get more confused and confusing by the day. Ostensibly they are all bound by the same law,  but the way they operate in the public sphere differs dramatically. Some are quite openly political, whilst others seem afraid to express an opinion.  Some try to be independent advocates for disadvantaged groups, whilst others appear to have become almost an arm of the state.

So, are charities allowed to be political, or not? Some organisations, like the Institute of Economic Affairs  or the Legatum Institute have charitable status, but their whole raison d’etre is, clearly, political.  Officially, their purpose is educational, but if you are educating the public on the virtues of free trade, low taxation, or Brexit, via the medium of frequent appearances on the news and Question Time, that’s quite political.  

The law states that charities are not allowed to be party political, but having seen these educational charities on Question Time or Newsnight, I think we all have a pretty clear idea of how they might vote. They’re not concealing Che Guevara t-shirts under their suits. 

And yet, organisations which most of us would see as more traditional charities, operating under the same law, seem to feel largely unable to put forward a political view, or strongly criticise government policy. Could we imagine, for instance, a member of staff from a charity working on the frontline of poverty or homelessness being a regular on Question Time, talking about Universal Credit or foodbank use? Probably not, and yet it is considered perfectly normal for other organisations with charitable status to make frequent appearances on such programmes to promote their views.

Over the past decade, thanks mainly to David Cameron, the environment in which charities operate has become far more complicated. First came his Big Society agenda. Many charities were enticed by the idea that they could enter into partnership with government and take on a more significant role in society. Some entered into contracts to provide services, attracting substantial budgets and perhaps making them reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them. In some cases they even signed contracts which specifically bar them from criticising the government. 

And now we learn that Citizens Advice will receive £51 million from the DWP for delivering its Universal Support service to Universal Credit claimants. Announcing this arrangement, Esther McVey said, “Citizens Advice are an independent and trusted organisation, who will support people as we continue the successful rollout of Universal Credit.” And there lies the problem. Can Citizens Advice continue to be considered independent, and therefore trusted, if it is working so closely with the DWP? Will it be free and willing to expose the harm done by Universal Credit, when Esther McVey simply refuses to acknowledge it?

In response Rob McDowall, chair of Welfare Scotland, said, “I cannot understand how Citizens Advice, an organisation at the very heart of our communities for nearly 80 years can support a partnership deal with the DWP to assist them deliver a seriously flawed social security programme such as Universal Credit.” There is still a significant campaign to stop and scrap Universal Credit. By entering into this partnership with the DWP, Citizens Advice has effectively endorsed it, accepting it as a permanent change to our social security system. 

Another recent announcement which gained less attention was that children’s charity Barnardo’s was also entering into a ‘collaboration’ with the DWP, to provide work experience (presumably unpaid)  to care leavers in its charity shops. Now, Barnardo’s could no doubt have offered care leavers work experience without involving the DWP, so what does this collaboration mean? Will Barnardo's be willling and able to criticise DWP policies which cause harm to care leavers?

It feels as if independent voices, which could have been critical of government policy, and advocates for very disadvantaged people, are one by one, being subsumed.

And then in 2014, as the full impact of austerity began to be felt, Mr. Cameron produced the Lobbying Act, which quickly came to be known as ‘the gagging law’. Research by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation found that, “Presented as an effort to bring transparency to the activities of commercial lobbyists, our evidence shows that it is charities that are feeling the ‘chilling effect’ of the Lobbying Act. We found that many are now less inclined to tackle politically challenging issues publicly. Doing so risks meeting both the ‘purpose test’ and ‘public test’ of the Act, which requires registration with the Electoral Commission. This is costly, whether organisations register or, instead, try to tread the non-registration side of the line. As a result, those who wish to avoid uncertainty and extra cost are forced to step a very long way back from any potentially challengeable activity.”

Ultimately, this meant that the voices and experiences of people most severely affected by government policies, people with the least power and influence, simply ‘went missing’, particularly during election campaigns.

During the 2017 general election, Steve Clapperton of the Charities Aid Foundation said “Concern is building among charities and politicians – including some MPs who initially supported the act – who have noted the absence of charities in policy debates where they would normally represent expert views on behalf of their often marginalised beneficiaries. After the election all parties need to come together to acknowledge the damaging impact of the lobbying act, and commit to repealing it.”

But the Lobbying act remains in force, and we have a situation in which charities may either be compromised as they are tied to government policies, or afraid of criticising those policies, particularly at the time when it most counts.  And organisations that don’t do anything that most people would consider conventionally charitable are a prominent and vocal presence in our political landscape, often in broad support of those very same policies.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.