The Charity Commission is monitoring the Badger Trust to ensure that its trustees "protect their charity from the perception of party political bias or a lack of independence," a case report from the commission said yesterday.
The report recounts the commission’s response to a complaint about the charity’s activities in the period leading up to this year’s general election. Of 17 interventions with charities by the commission during the nine months before the poll, this is the only one dealt with in a separate case report.
The report says the charity’s activities included promotion of a march entitled ‘Stop Cameron’s Cull’, at which the charity’s chief executive would be speaking, and references in social media and elsewhere to its contribution to the manifesto of "a particular party."
The report does not name the party, and a commission spokeswoman declined to confirm that it was the Labour party, which pledged in its manifesto that it would bring "an end to this government’s ineffective and cruel badger cull."
Dominic Dyer, chief executive of the charity, confirmed that the party in question was the Labour Party and said the complaint that prompted the commission's intervention was "a political attack". It was made by a former Conservative agriculture minister, he said.
The case report says the commission considered that the charity’s actions risked calling its political neutrality into question. "Charities must be, and must be seen to be, independent of party politics, and their trustees must ensure their charity is politically neutral and is seen as such publicly," it says.
The report says the commission immediately contacted the charity, which "confirmed that the material of concern would be removed from the website as a matter of urgency," and said it would ask the organisers of the march to remove Cameron’s name from the event, although it could not enforce this.
The charity also told the commission that the chief executive would be speaking at the march as a private individual rather than as a representative of the charity. The march had been organised to oppose the government’s policy of tackling bovine TB by culling badgers.
The report says the commission told the charity that some material promoted by the chief executive during the election period had allowed for the perception that the charity was aligned with a particular party. "Given these risks, we told the charity it must take immediate steps to publicly reaffirm its party political neutrality," it says.
The charity then dissociated itself from the planned event, the report says, and published a statement on its website making clear that statements by the chief executive were made in a personal capacity and the charity did not endorse any political party or its policies.
The report concludes: "The law makes it clear that charities are free to campaign and to take part in political activities to further their purposes. Indeed, campaigning can be a valuable and effective way for charities to help their beneficiaries.
"But charity law sets limits. Political campaigning and activity must only be undertaken by a charity in the context of supporting the delivery of its charitable purposes. Trustees must also guard their charity’s independence and ensure that any involvement with political parties is balanced."
Dyer said: "We feel that this was a political attack. The complaint had come from Sir Jim Paice, the former agricultural minister, which triggered an investigation from the commission and led to restrictions to what we could do during the election campaign.
"We met all of the restrictions the commission put before us, but we felt that we were absolutely right to continue to campaign on something that we had pursued for the five years of the coalition government. The government wanted to continue to kill badgers under a culling policy that we had campaigned against on scientific, economic and humane grounds.
"We met with the Labour Party and discussed our concerns and thoughts about what they might want to put in their manifesto, but, at the end of the day, what the Labour Party produced was their work.
"I was told again that this something that should not have been happening. But when you have one party that has a cull position in its manifesto and an opposition party putting an anti-cull one, where do they expect us to go? Political neutrality is just not something that we could maintain in that situation. If we had, we would have lost support, which as trustees and as a chief executive is something we had to take into account."
Dyer said that all parties were invited to speak at the march that had raised regulatory concerns, but candidates from the Conservative Party declined. "What seems to a problem is the mention of the Prime Minister and a campaign slogan that we had used for nearly two years," he said.
"We felt that this was a test case and that civil society was being shot down during the election campaign. As a charity, we felt that needed to push the boundaries of these gagging laws and I’m proud of what we did."