Comment: Beware the rise of the political charity

Last month the British Muslim Initiative posted a letter on The Guardian website's 'comment is free' blog. "We the undersigned believe that it is in the best interest of the Muslim communities of London, and indeed all Londoners, to back Mr Livingstone in this year's mayoral elections," it read.

Nick Seddon
Nick Seddon

It was signed by 63 organisations, 16 of them charities. Appropriately, the Charity Commission wrote to those charities telling them that they are not permitted to support political candidates.

It may be perfectly clear what constitutes unacceptable political activity - namely, party political campaigning. But when it comes to acceptable political activity, such as campaigning for changes in the law, the boundaries are smudgier. The question is not whether charities should be allowed to campaign politically, but whether they should be able to do nothing else.

As things stand, charities must not make political campaigning their "dominant" activity. Those who want the law to change complain that this is ambiguous. Although the law hasn't changed, the Charity Commission has issued new draft guidance that implies it has. Confused? You should be.

Now, the draft guidance states that "political activity cannot be the only way in which a charity pursues its charitable purposes". Although moving from not being "dominant" to not being the "only" activity may seem an isthmus linguistically, conceptually it's an abyss. It creates a whopping great loophole: any charity could make political campaigning its dominant activity so long as it took on a single other activity, however small.

Shadow charities minister Greg Clark has said the proposed guidance is misleading. Potentially, it's rather worse than that. In the wake of the cash for honours inquiry, the Government is proposing to cap donations to political parties. But allowing charities to become virtually pure pressure groups would permit organisations whose activities were 100 per cent party political to receive funds uncapped, anonymously and supported by the taxpayer through Gift Aid.

Unacceptable, right? Few things would be more likely to undermine confidence in charities than to see them used as fronts for political fundraising.

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist:


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