So who's breaking the political rules?

The Charity Commission has confirmed that it has contacted four charities about their political activities in the run-up to the election, but it won't say how many more have potentially fallen foul of the rules

Most of the recent rhetoric about charities being too political has been about challenges to the Conservative-led government: think of the row about the Oxfam tweet and criticism of charities by ministers including Chris Grayling and Eric Pickles. So it’s ironic that the first instances to come to light in the election campaign concern four charities that added their name to The Daily Telegraph’s front-page plea to vote Conservative. The Charity Commission is asking them to "remedy the situation swiftly".

This naturally raises this question: how many other complaints has the commission been getting during the campaign about charities being involved in inappropriate political activity? You can be sure that some politicians and others with an axe to grind will be keeping a beady eye on their usual suspects and weighing in where they can.

The commission won’t answer the question, however. It will respond if specific names are put to it, as Third Sector did in the case of the Telegraph four. Beyond that, it won’t even give numbers of complaints, let alone names. The reason? Not helpful, can’t give a running commentary, proper analysis in due course, etc.

What the commission will say, though, is that the rapid-response mechanism it announced earlier in the year has swung into action, dealing with complaints "swiftly to give both charities and the public confidence in what is and isn’t acceptable". But how can said confidence be swiftly imparted if nothing will be said publicly until well after the event? Well, it turns out that the commission is referring in the above phrase to the individual charities complained about and those who have complained, as opposed to charities in general and the public at large. So the opportunity is not being taken, even in general terms, to alert the wider sector rapidly about any transgressions in the hope that others will avoid them.

The commission is also willing to say that the level of complaint is "not vastly different" than it was at the same stage in 2010, when a similar rigmarole of reluctance was played out. Once that election was over and the dust was settling, it revealed that 18 complaints had been received, 16 cases were opened, eight were found to be of no concern and five charities were given "regulatory advice and guidance" (in other words, a reprimand). The remaining three were still under consideration when the statement was made and are now lost in the mists of time.

Last time, it took a request under the Freedom of Information Act from Third Sector, and a challenge to the initial unhelpful response by the commission, to elicit even those few details. This time the commission has pledged to review findings from its election casework, along with the impact of the lobbying act, once the campaign is over. Let’s hope it will publish a full and informative report promptly, giving not only numbers but also an analysis of the nature and outcomes of the complaints so that people can learn from them. It’s reasonable for the names to be withheld of charities against whom no action is taken, but there’s surely a case for the commission to name those that it reprimands.

This article was first published on the Third Sector blog

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