Sue Tibballs: Could charities have swung the vote behind the European Union?

Sue Tibballs
Sue Tibballs

Brexit. As in a game of Jenga, the British people have pulled a block out from the base of British politics and everything is tumbling. The political establishment is frantically try to re-establish order. Extraordinary times.

What part have charities played in all of this, if any? Or more appositely, what part could charities have played in all of this?

As you will know, the issue of whether charities could or should campaign in the run-up to the referendum became a matter of some controversy. The Charity Commission brought out its guidance quite late and with minimal consultation, and it included the now notorious line that only in "exceptional circumstances" did it think any charity would consider it appropriate to campaign. Without doubt, this stopped a lot of charities from campaigning – only those with the legal support and political will did. For many, trying to navigate the "advice", particularly with risk-averse boards, was just too difficult.

So what do we think of that advice now?

Rather than the UK’s membership of the EU being relevant to only a handful of charities, as the commission seems to think, it seems to me that our membership of the EU is relevant to a great many. Any organisation concerned with workers’ rights and equality, global peace and security, or environmental sustainability, for example, has an interest in being part of the EU – and that covers quite a large chunk of the sector. For them, the question of Britain’s membership is a legitimate matter of policy interest, relevant to their pursuance of their charitable objects.

Then there is the EU money available to charities. Just a few days before the vote, Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, wrote an impassioned piece in The Huffington Post about how valuable the EU is, citing the £13bn pot of EU money for which British charities can currently bid. So why, as the responsible minister, did he not seek to reassure charities and publicly soften the regulator’s advice?

It seems to me a great shame, and highly regrettable, that the Charity Commission gave such narrow advice. Who knows what difference it might have made if more charities had actively campaigned, but they still enjoy higher levels of trust that any other sector and are uniquely placed to help inform and educate the public about the implications of critical policy choices.

Charities also, of course, enjoy very close relationships with the people they serve, many of whom are the economically vulnerable and understandably anxious people who voted to leave. Can and should charities do more to bridge the gap between people and the political classes?

I believe the answer to this is "yes", particularly at a time of such democratic deficit (if this referendum proved one thing is that people do not feel their elected representatives are really representing them). Not only do I think this would be hugely valuable to society, but I think it would be of value to charities too.

Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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