Matthew Sherrington: Transparency and politics in think tanks and charities

Being open about political affiliation and funding is a good thing, but not when it's in response to critics who won't ever be satisfied, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

The Centre for Policy Studies came out last month with a report criticising larger charities for a lack of transparency over the extent of their public funding.

The CPS is the right-wing think tank set up by Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph to champion the rolling back of the state. It reveals its bias with talk of charities "refusing" to provide the information, even though they meet the Sorp’s accounting requirements. Beneath the report’s disingenuous concern about the sector’s viability lurks an agenda about outing the kind of public spending through charities that the CPS would hope to axe.

Let’s take a moment to relish the irony of the CPS producing this report, entitled Transparency Begins at Home, when it does not publicly declare its own funding. It offers no financial information on its website, and whofundsyou.org gives it a "D" for transparency and accountability, for refusing to provide any when asked. I emailed them myself and got no reply.

Meanwhile, Tory MP Charlie Elphicke (who picked a bone with Oxfam over their austerity tweet, for which the Charity Commission gave them a minor slap on the wrist)  got the Charity Commission to investigate the Institute of Public Policy Research for its report The Condition of Britain. The Charity Commission found that IPPR "exposed itself to the perception that it supported the development of Labour Party policy". Elphicke argues that the charitable status of think tanks should be clarified, but goes on to conflate this point with the need to strengthen guidance on political campaigning.

On the first point, I actually have some sympathy. It’s a hard case to make that think-tanks are charitably serving the public benefit, when they are mostly ideological one way or another and their charitable status is largely there to give their donors a tax break. Remember last year it was Nigel Lawson’s right-wing think tank the Global Warming Policy Foundation that was censured by the Charity Commission for crossing the charity line with its attempt to pass off its junking of climate change science as education.

However, Elphicke’s suggestion that this IPPR issue damages the charity sector at large is nonsense. No-one thinks of think-tanks as charities, any more than they think of public schools as charities. They fall into this category for tax purposes, and little else. But it serves his purpose in floating yet again his canard about charities’ political campaigning and the need to curtail it.

The NCVO, which does a good job championing transparency, gives the CPS report short shrift, claiming that it says "nothing new".  Nonetheless NCVO’s own recent recommendation that senior managers and trustees declare their political affiliation and make it public, which was made as part of its draft guidance on campaigning, is a step too far.

At the charity where I am a trustee political affiliation is already declared, and at charities where I have worked, party political activity of staff has had to be declared too. That’s absolutely right. But rather than easing anxiety about politicisation of charities, making that information public will exacerbate it, bringing with it the unnecessary risk of charities making trustee and staff appointments to demonstrate political balance.

Transparency is a good thing, but not when it’s in response to critics who won’t ever be satisfied.

Matthew Sherrington is an independent charity consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington

This article was originally published on the Third Sector blog

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