Regulation with Rosie: public benefit

The Charity Commission's Rosie Chapman on helping the 'undeserving'.

Recent events have thrown the spotlight yet again on media prejudices about 'deserving' and 'undeserving' victims, comparing families in clear emotional need and implying that some may have contributed to their troubles more than others.

We like to think that charities are immune to such value judgements, but it is something we've had to tackle in our draft supplementary guidance for charities set up to relieve poverty.

One of the general principles of public benefit is that it must be balanced against any detriment or harm. It's hard to see, on the face of it, how preventing or relieving poverty could be something that doesn't benefit the public. But some might argue that helping those whose poverty is 'self-induced' by, for example, an addiction to gambling, is counter-productive for society.

Our view is that it is a characteristic of a caring and advanced society that certain basic needs are met, whatever the reasons for those needs.

But what about a charity that relieves the poverty of asylum seekers who have been refused leave to remain or those who, for whatever reason, are denied welfare benefits by law? We acknowledge that there may be public policy reasons for refusing these people access to welfare benefits, but we think it is permissible for charities to help all those who are destitute or in financial hardship.

Charities are often called on to defend their decisions to help those perceived as 'undeserving' - offenders, drug and alcohol abusers and those convicted of sexual offences. And too often they find that doing so is a no-win situation.

Our supplementary guidance suggests that the issue must be whether people lack the basic things in life, not why they lack them. It will be very interesting to hear your views.

- Rosie Chapman is executive director of policy and effectiveness at the commission.

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