'Charitable' parties idea provokes mixed reaction

Proposals for political parties to be granted charitable status have polarised voluntary sector opinion.

According to reports in The Independent last week, the Labour Party is considering giving charitable status to political parties, or at least allowing them to qualify for the same tax breaks as charities. Although the NCVO condemned the suggestion, saying it could "undermine confidence" in the sector, Acevo favours the move.

"Political parties are voluntary organisations," said Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo. "They rely on vast numbers of volunteers."

Bubb said he saw no problem with mainstream parties qualifying as charities because they contribute to a healthy democracy. "The general secretary of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party happen to be Acevo members," he said.

But the idea, which the Labour Party says is among several options under discussion to reduce the reliance of political parties on individual donations, would face opposition from the NCVO.

"The Charities Bill clarifies the legal definition of charity so that it will be easier for the public to understand what charities are for," said Belinda Pratten, senior policy officer at the NCVO. "Blurring the boundary between political and charitable activity could undermine confidence in the charity sector."

Legal experts have reacted with similar scepticism. "It would change the landscape of what is charitable," said Rosamund McCarthy, consultant for Bates, Wells & Braithwaite.

She warned that although campaigning organisations, which aren't registered charities, could benefit, the changes would open the sector up to extremist groups.

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