It wasn’t the Brethren wot won it, but then what did they stand to lose?
After an unexpected Conservative election victory in 1992, The Sun famously claimed that it was they "wot won it" (some disagree, of course).
More recently, it was the Conservative Party in coalition that brought us the lobbying act in an attempt to regulate the influence of third parties on elections. As such, the sector and the Charity Commission should consider carefully what lessons are to be learnt from of a quartet of interventions by charities that, although probably not in themselves enough to win an election, have been alleged to be partisan, three of them pro-Tory.
To recap, last week four charities were told by the Charity Commission that their names should be removed from a list of signatories to a pro-Conservative letter published in The Daily Telegraph, and an east London mosque was told by the regulator to remove a mural that offered support to a minor party candidate standing in the same constituency as the (now former) Ukip leader Nigel Farage.
This week, the National Council of Hindu Temples was also told to take down from its website a letter that all but told people to vote Conservative, and the commission said it was looking into allegations that members of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church had campaigned and prayed for the Tories.
In the case of the Telegraph letter, the four charities quickly heeded the commission’s orders and apologised, explaining that it had been an honest mistake, and thanks to the commission and the charities’ swift action, little harm was done – the charities were, after all, only four out of more than 5,000 signatories. But in the cases of the mosque, the temples and the Brethren, the feeling I got from the various PR people, trustees and staff I spoke to, was that people weren’t really treating this as a particularly big deal. There are two potential conclusions to be drawn from this.
The first is that these organisations were not really aware of CC9 and had sleepwalked their way into those sticky situations. This would be worrying, and suggests the need for more awareness among charities of their legal position, and perhaps clearer guidance from regulators – although how much clearer you can be than "a charity must not give support or funding to a political party", I’m not sure.
The second possibility is that there was a tactical pushing of the envelope, or perhaps even an all-out deliberate breach of the rules, safe in the knowledge that the consequences would be minor. Campaigns and PR stunts frequently break laws or get into trouble on purpose, if they feel that the reprimand will be worth it. I’m not saying that this is necessarily what happened in any of these cases, but it is clear that some people might consider such a calculated risk worthwhile. After all, the commission can’t fine organisations for breaches, nor is it likely that trustee heads will role or that anything very much will happen at the aforementioned charities if the regulator’s involvement finds them guilty of anything. I know it’s difficult to get the right balance, but that doesn’t feel like a particularly effective regulatory regime.
In the coming months, both the Charity Commission and the Electoral Commission will be reporting publicly on their regulation of charity campaigning during the election. And later in the year comes the official review of the lobbying act. It remains to be seen whether anything can be done to close the loophole whereby charities can comfortably indulge in a bit of illicit cheerleading for a political party and get off scot free. Or, perhaps more relevantly, whether anything can be done to make sure trustees are a little more mindful of CC9, in whatever shape it is in come the next election.