Should charities publish staff's political affiliations?

An NCVO working group says a register would help charities to maintain their neutrality. Sam Burne James reports

NCVO: working group has presented its draft proposals
NCVO: working group has presented its draft proposals

Would we require staff to delcare their sexuality or religion? No. It's the same with political affiliations

Jay Kennedy, head of policy, Directory of Social Change

The political neutrality of charities, especially those that campaign, has been put into the spotlight in the past year by the lobbying act, the row that followed the complaint by a Conservative MP about an Oxfam tweet, remarks about charities "sticking to their knitting" and a string of national media articles.

The subject came up again before Christmas when a working group set up by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations published its report, Upholding Charities' Independence and Reputation. Among the draft recommendations on which the NCVO is inviting feedback is that charities should consider publishing a register of interests setting out any political affiliations of senior staff and trustees.

The chief executives body Acevo said it would "respond robustly to the NCVO consultation to reject this particular proposal".

Elizabeth Balgobin, a governance consultant, says her initial response was to ask what being a member of a political party would tell you about a person's skills and abilities. She says many boards already have such registers but do not publish them. "Good boards would start a meeting by considering conflicts of interest on any items," she says.

Jay Kennedy, head of policy at the support and training charity the Directory of Social Change, says it is important to strike a balance between transparency and civil liberties. "Would we require charity senior officers to declare their sexual orientation or religion to the public?" he asks. "Of course not – and it's the same with a person's political affiliations."

Kennedy says political affiliation should remain people's private business until they seek or occupy elected office, at which point it becomes a matter of public record. "This appears to be yet another regulatory solution in search of a problem," he says.

One local councillor, who asked not to be named, is the finance director of a charity. He says his charity simply ensures that he is not involved in policy discussions. This takes its cue from Charity Commission guidance on conflicts of interest, which suggests charities "require trustees to declare their interest at an early stage and, in most cases, withdraw from relevant discussions, decision-making and votes".

Elizabeth Chamberlain, policy manager at the NCVO, says she was aware the register proposal could be controversial. But it could have gone further, she says – for example, by proposing the practice adopted by one of the charities in the working group, which requires anyone appointed to a senior post to give up any party political membership.

Responses to the recommendations have been positive in general, she says, but none has addressed this specific proposal. "It would be damaging if the sector can't see the intention behind the recommendation and that we're trying to be helpful," she says. "It's not about preventing people from having this aspect in their lives, but asking them to declare it so that charities can consider the implications case by case."

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