Clark was speaking at last night’s debate at the House of Commons, organised by the NCVO in association with Third Sector, on whether to drop the Charity Commission's requirement that political campaigning should be only be an ancillary part of a charity’s activities.
He said a poverty relief charity could argue that immigration was the biggest cause of poverty in the UK and dedicate itself to campaigning for a tightening of immigration laws.
“The Commission would decide which laws work in the public interest,” he said. “This would be a democratic travesty.”
He also warned that the reputation of the sector could be “besmirched” by the prospect of political campaigning charities receiving “uncapped donations from anywhere in the world, which are not disclosed in the public register and on which they would receive tax relief”.
Francesca Quint, a charity lawyer, said a change in the law was unnecessary because charities could set up separate non-charitable arms for political campaigning in much the same way that non-charitable campaigning organisations such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International set up associated charities to carry out the parts of their work that count as charitable.
However, Baroness Helena Kennedy, who chaired the recent Advisory Group on Campaigning and the Voluntary Sector, said charities had to be allowed to dedicate themselves to campaigning as a way of addressing the “democratic deficit” in the country. She said people trusted charities more than politicians and charities could be a way to involve them in political debate at a “lower level”.
She added that the majority of people working in charities thought that the current law was a “minefield of confusion”.
Brian Lamb, director of communications at RNID, agreed. He said the current law meant a small charity could be breaking the law by campaigning on a particular issue even though it was doing exactly the same thing as a larger one.
He said: “If campaigning were deemed by the trustees to be the most effective way to promote the charity’s objects then they would be obliged by other aspects of charity law to choose it.”
Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, echoed Clark’s call for the Government to respond formally to Baroness Kennedy’s report.
A Government spokeswoman told Third Sector after the event that the Government was “not convinced” of the need for a change in law.
However, she said the current law needed clarifying. “We can’t live with current situation of small charities looking over their shoulders,” she said. “They should be able to bite the hand that feeds.”
All participants agreed that a much wider debate on the issue was needed.