Charities should be restricted in the amount of political lobbying they are allowed to undertake, MPs said yesterday during a Parliamentary committee hearing into public benefit.
Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow, told the Public Administration Select Committee that the Charity Commission had made "arbitrary decisions" about how much lobbying charities were allowed to do, and whether organisations that existed primarily to lobby government should have charitable status.
The committee is investigating the implementation and operation of the Charities Act 2006.
"A charity should be about doing practical things," he said. "Surely the real test of whether something is a charity is what it does on the ground."
Halfon said that there were too many very large "Tesco charities" that spent millions of pounds lobbying in Whitehall and that charities should be required to report on how much money they spent on lobbying and campaigning.
Charlie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover, quoted a report by the think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs that said that many charities had become "sock puppets" for political lobbying and that this process "subverts democracy and debases the concept of charity".
He said he objected to charities such as Shelter, which he said "doesn’t provide any shelter", and the NSPCC, which "went through a phase of pure campaigning" but which he said has now started working on the front line again.
"If a member of the public puts a pound in a rattling tin, and that money is spent on press officers and Bell Pottinger to lobby a bunch of politicians, wouldn’t that person feel a bit disgusted and a bit cheated?"
Philip Kirkpatrick, a partner at Bates Wells and Braithwaite who gave evidence to the committee, also said that the law should be clarified, but said should be liberalised.
He said that the law was not clear, and that while CC9, the Charity Commission guidance on campaigning and political activities, was very effective, it was based only on the commission’s loose interpretation of the law.
He said there was one issue the guidance could not deal with, which was "whether a charity can spend all or most of its resources on political campaigning of one type or another". The law should be changed, he went on, to make clear how much campaigning charities could do and that, in his view, charities should be allowed to have campaigning as their primary activity.
He said that he supported the idea that charities should reveal what they spent on campaigning in the same way that they do with fundraising, as part of the Statement of Recommended Practice, the accounting regulations that govern charities.
The committee also heard that the government had "ducked" difficult issues about the definition of charity when it passed the Charities Act 2006.
Kelvin Hopkins, Labour MP for Luton North, said that the government did not want to deal with the question of public benefit and independent schools. He said it was "a hot potato that Parliament passed on to the Charity Commission."
He said that decision was "a hospital pass".
Greg Mulholland, Liberal Democrat MP for Leeds North West, said that the act had failed to produce an effective definition. "It appears that there simply isn’t an adequate set of criteria for determining what a charity is," he said. "Something isn’t working if there is all this confusion."
But legal experts giving evidence to the committee said that the government had been faced with an extremely difficult task because of the diverse nature of charity.
Francesca Quint, a barrister specialising in charity law at Radcliffe Chambers, said that any definition of charity that was too exact quickly risked becoming "fossilised".
But she said the definition of public benefit "could have been expressed more definitely if Parliament had chosen to do so".
However, Kirkpatrick added that it was "unreasonable to expect an act of Parliament to clarify 500 years of contradictory case law in a way that was comprehensible".