Comment: Guidance for an active civil society

Last month the Charity Commission published its guidance on public benefit. It has received much attention and I am about to add my penny's worth.

John Knight
John Knight

Debate has surrounded the redefinition of the term 'people living on low incomes' to 'people living in poverty', when it refers to people living in poverty not being excluded from opportunities that a charity such as a fee-charging school might offer. My interest in this is about the issues the public-benefit guidance raises about the role of charities. It is about the campaigning role of charities in achieving their charitable aims. This has received political attention, with both Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband talking about the right of charities to campaign without fear or favour.

As well as stipulating public benefit for charities, the commission's guidance on public benefit also outlines what constitutes a 'charitable purpose' for a voluntary organisation. Included in this list of aims that a charity must fulfil are the prevention or relief of poverty, the advancement of animal welfare and the advancement of environmental protection or improvement.

A freedom to campaign politically would help many charities to achieve their charitable purposes. Indeed, it might even be essential to the charity's service-users. Charities can currently take part in political campaigning only if it is not their 'dominant' function, but the commission is revisiting this stance.

Recently, the commission confirmed that instead of campaigning activities being seen as 'ancillary' to a charity's purposes, they could be defined as activities that further or support charitable purposes. This revision is welcome, though the revision of words may not necessarily represent a revision of meaning.

Charities play a key role in agitating to achieve change. The relationship of politics to many organisations' charitable objectives is, by necessity, changing to reflect a more active civil society. It is time that the commission's guidance caught up.

- John Knight is head of policy and campaigns at Leonard Cheshire 

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