Joe Irvin: Democracy is the poorer if charities don't campaign

Charities should not be stopped from having their say, argues the chief executive of Living Streets

Joe Irvin
Joe Irvin

The Charity Commission recently shelved proposals for charities to report in detail on campaigning expenditure because of the "administrative burden". But this doesn't mean attempts to curtail campaigning are going to go away.

An undercurrent of hostility to charity campaigning has emerged in recent years, to which some politicians have contributed. Some have urged direct curbs on campaigning, but the lobbying act has been judged by the Harries review to have had a similar impact indirectly because of the prospect of litigation. The think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs praised the Australian state of Queensland for ruling that NGOs, more than half of whose income is from public funds, "must not advocate for state or federal legislative change". I beg to differ.

Charities cannot become involved in party politics, as is clear from the Charity Commission's CC9 guidance. A charity must be established for charitable purposes only, which are for the public benefit: an organisation is not charitable if its purposes are political. The commission might soon review CC9 and tighten it up. But charities should not be excluded from conversations to which they have much to contribute. It is important their voices are heard in pursuit of their aims and as thought leaders.

The mental health charity Mind gets public funds. Why? Because it is being paid for a public benefit. Should Mind be prevented, then, from campaigning for better mental health services? I don't think so.

We live in a democracy founded on free speech. If charities can't freely make representations to decision-makers, that democracy is the poorer.

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