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Political Pain: Should Charities Be Allowed to Campaign?

Illustration by Tracy Worrall

Georgina Bailey, Eleanor Langford and Kate Proctor

7 min read

With increasing debate over whether charities should take political positions, is it possible to separate charitable works from campaigning?

Charities rarely make it on to the front page of a newspaper when things go right. Over the past year, there has been a string of high-profile incidents where politicians have castigated the third sector for – as one MP put it – “playing politics”.  

Notable examples include Liz Truss’ clashes with the Runnymede Trust over their comments on white nationalism and UNICEF’s dressing down by Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, who branded the agency’s plans to help deprived children in the UK a “political stunt”.

From the National Trust to Barnardos and Stonewall, increasing numbers of charities have found themselves at loggerheads with politicians, often including government ministers.

And charities fear there could be real consequences from being drawn into these culture wars.

“Let me describe a scenario,” says Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis.

“At a Conservative Party conference a few years ago, one of the main venues was a marquee sponsored by one of the newspapers. 

“There were MPs and ministers meeting with charities about charitable issues, and around the walls were mocked up front pages that had attacks [from politicians] at charities on them.

“Put yourself in that situation, where you can physically see the results of when government relations go wrong, and how it would devastate your donor base if you were seen to be hauled through the press. You have to worry about it.”

“The attitudes of MPs are not necessarily the attitudes of the public” Chloe Hardy, Sheila McKechnie Foundation

A recent survey by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation found that, in 2020, 63 per cent of organisations felt politicians had become more negative towards their efforts, compared to 45 per cent in 2019. 

“Campaigners are saying they are encountering an increasingly hostile political environment. And that politicians are getting more negative about campaigning,” says Chloe Hardy, director of policy and communications at the Sheila McKechnie Foundation. 

She believes that, increasingly, “the attitudes of MPs are not necessarily the attitudes of the public” when it comes to how they view charitable campaigning, and culture war issues like white privilege and immigration. MPs who complain about the sector argue the reverse – it is charities, not them, who are out of touch. 

The interesting dichotomy is that while charities are criticised by the government, they are also increasingly delivering services – such as healthcare, probation, sexual health, legal advice, free meals and more – on their behalf. 

Indeed, statistics from the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) show that around a third (29 per cent) of charitable income comes from the government.

In recent years, this money has increasingly come in the form of contracts for services instead of grants. The British Red Cross, for example, received £32m via 242 such contracts last year, largely to deliver NHS services such as patient transport and blue light response.

British Red Cross ambulances at a festival [Alamy]

The most recent available sector-wide estimates from NCVO in 2013/14 suggest government income from grants had fallen by £3.3bn over the previous decade, while the amount provided via contracts had more than doubled from £5.8bn to £12.2bn. 

Unlike grants, government contracts come with clauses and caveats that some argue limits an organisation’s independence, with accountability switching from the beneficiaries to the government as the commissioner.

This is especially true of smaller charities, which may not have the clout or resources of their larger counterparts. “If you’re a small organisation, or perhaps if your trustees are more risk averse, then you would worry, particularly if a large chunk of your funding was coming through government sources,” Downie says. 

Controversially, these restrictions are sometimes more explicit, coming in the form of so-called “gagging clauses’” A 2018 investigation by The Times found at least 40 charities had been banned from criticising ministers or attracting “adverse publicity” as a condition of their contract with the government.

But, as Neil Heslop, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation, argues, such clauses are “misjudged” as they assume the charity’s cause can exist separately from political debate.

“There is a strand of political opinion that believes charities should confine themselves to their role as a service provider. Our position is this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the legal roles of charities,” Heslop says. 

“Most charities have a responsibility to work on both the symptom and the cause. And while the symptom might be the service provision, the root cause, about how those symptoms are removed over time absolutely speaks to politics.”

Heslop continues: “The distinction is: charities must not and should not allow themselves to get mixed up in party politics.”

"Most people who give money to charities want them to steer clear of controversy and get on with the job in hand" – Tom Hunt MP

Charity Commission guidance states that organisations can speak out on political issues, provided they do not align themselves with a single party.

In a blog this March accompanying its recent finding that the National Trust had not broken charity law by publishing a report on its properties’ links to slavery and colonialism, CEO of the Charity Commission Helen Stephenson reiterated that charities are allowed to campaign and to take controversial positions in support of their purpose. 

However, in doing this, she said, charities must be able to show that they are driven “not by the background, world view or political inclinations and interests of their leaders, but by their mission and purpose, and by the needs of the people or causes they serve,” and that they have considered the consequences of any ensuing publicity. 

Tom Hunt, Conservative MP for Ipswich and a member of the Common Sense Group which criticised the Trust, said: “Charities are under the auspices of the Charity Commission and receive tax payer benefits so obviously there’s an obligation on them to steer clear of politics whenever and wherever they can. There have been a number of charities over the years that have failed to do that. 

“I think most people would like to see charities refrain from being engaged in politics in the party political sense and the divisive debate we’ve seen ongoing. Most people who give money to charities want them to steer clear of controversy and get on with the job in hand.”

Hunt suggested charities he considered had become too political typically had links to the left – highlighting the director of the Runnymede Trust, Halima Begum’s links to the Labour Party. She ran to represent the party in Poplar and Limehouse in London. 

Any charities with a link to the Conservative Party should also rescind those ties, he said, adding, however: “I can’t really think of any examples though.”

A fellow Conservative MP and member of the Common Sense Group, Sally-Ann Hart, the MP for Hastings and Rye, said: “Arguably, many charities were set up with ‘political’ purposes; to prevent poverty, improve animal and human rights, for example. But for some reason, many charities do seem to have a left-wing bias. 

"Charities know full well they don’t have a democratic mandate like governments do"  – Matt Downie, Crisis

“Such charities – or individuals involved with running them – will miss out if their ideology prevents them from working with the very people or bodies, mainly in government, that can help find a solution to the issues they care about.”

She said the “stewardship” of a charity’s purpose should always take precedence.

However, in the face of rising tensions, Downie argues the government needs to “reset” its relationship with charities and realise that “respect runs both ways”.

“Charities know full well they don’t have a democratic mandate like governments do and that they need to respect the policy agenda that governments have been elected to deliver.

“But at the same time [the government] needs to respect the independence and precious nature of civil society, which does things almost for free for them.

“If charities were seen as an asset by the government, we would actually do things collaboratively much better together.”

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