Editorial: Pressure groups do public benefit too

Tania Mason, deputy editor

Until now, most of the debate around the Charities Bill has centred on public benefit, and most of the debate around public benefit has centred on public schools. But in an interview with Third Sector this week (see page 21), People & Planet director Ian Leggett raises a new public benefit issue.

He argues that campaigning for change on acknowledged social and environmental problems clearly meets the public benefit test, and he contends it is an anathema that the Government and most trusts and foundations will not fund groups that exist for this purpose.

Let's explore that in the context of the momentous week ahead. If the G8 leaders do accept the debt relief deal that's been mooted, everybody who bought a Make Poverty History wristband can claim a tiny bit of the credit. Let's face it, they would never have voluntarily passed up the billions of pounds they are owed by poor countries without pressure from campaigners - and that means Joe Bloggs who signed the Make Poverty History petition as much as Bob Geldof. Does that debt relief count as public benefit? Of course it does.

And if the forthcoming climate change campaign does manage to move developed world governments to put in place policies to slash emissions, will that be of public benefit? Most certainly.

The irony is that if you are a small organisation that mobilises volunteers to help old ladies in Luton do their shopping, there is plenty of money you can access. But if you are a small organisation that mobilises volunteers to put pressure on those in this country with the power to make lasting improvements in other countries, you find doors closed all over the place.

The Charity Commission's guidance allows campaigning as long as it is "not the dominant method by which an organisation carries out its purposes".

So pressure groups remain out in the cold, even though public benefit is the test on which charitable status hinges. Is this right? In the global village, the actions of our politicians directly affect the lives of people overseas. The millions of UK citizens that will descend on Edinburgh, flock to Hyde Park and the Eden Project, or simply tune in on their TVs this weekend, know this. Most would find it absurd that lobbying those politicians for change is not deemed, in itself, to be for the public benefit.

In the shadow of the biggest charity campaign the world has ever seen, this is a debate whose time has come.

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