Editorial: Why should we listen to the True and Fair Foundation?

Its quality of research and argument have been deemed poor, writes Stephen Cook, but it is part of a general movement to clip the wings of charities

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

For the second time in three months, the True and Fair Foundation has published a report full of ill-informed  and partial criticism of charities. In December it produced A Hornets Nest, which said charities spent too little of their funds on "good works" and was described by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations as a wilful misrepresentation of the facts. Now it has brought out Lifting the Lid, which calls for an urgent government inquiry into charities, the restriction of Gift Aid to the proportion of income spent on charitable purposes and the reduction of rate relief for charity shops from 80 per cent to 50 per cent. The NCVO calls this report "embarrassingly poor."

The last published accounts of this foundation show that in the year to September 2014 it had an income of £109,000, including £22,500 in Gift Aid, and gave money to charities such as Street Kids International and a small Christian charity for teenage pregnancies. The trustees’ report said it had one employee and most of its income came from the two founding trustees, Alan Miller, who made his fortune in fund management, and his wife Gina, who has a marketing background. Since 2014 the foundation has evidently decided it is also a research organisation and think tank.

So why should anyone take any notice of the emanations of the True and Fair Foundation? The answer is: because of the company it keeps, in spirit if not in actuality. The summary of Lifting the Lid quotes the chair of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, saying "it sometimes seems that big charities in particular have been impersonal, aggressive and, in some cases, exploitative". The foundation’s messages are generally in keeping with the faction on the Charity Commission board that charities should "stick to their knitting " – a faction that has today been shown in emails released under the Freedom of Information Act to have had discussions with the Institute of Economic Affairs. It was the IEA’s tendentious "Sock Puppets" report that prompted the government to promulgate its recent anti-lobbying clause in future grant agreements.

Then there’s the media connection. Both the foundation’s recent reports have been given in advance to the Daily Telegraph, which nowadays appears to run a story criticising charities every day, in the same way the Times runs an anti-BBC story every day. Both reports were written by the Telegraph’s chief political correspondent, who appears to have a special charities brief. The Telegraph was also fed in advance the announcement of the no-lobbying clause several weeks ago. And the Telegraph quotes Gina Miller in today’s story alleging that charities have broken political campaigning rules in the EU referendum campaign: she is clearly their pundit of choice.

The True and Fair Foundation, in summary, is unmistakeably part of a general movement among parts of the political right to put charities back in their box – a box that confines them to activities described with phrases such as "helping people" and "doing good works." The movement's preference is to return charities to a Victorian model where Lady Bountiful ministers to the deserving poor while studiously averting her eyes from, and saying nothing about, the factors in British society that might be creating poverty or other injustice in the first place. Charities should no longer be under any illusion: campaigning, public funding, pay and professionalization - not to mention fundraising - are all under unprecedented critical scrutiny and at risk of political and regulatory intervention. They and their representative bodies need to be aware of this, tread carefully, continue to refute biased attacks, continue to speak up for themselves, and where necessary mobilise their supporters in their defence.

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