The Charity Commission has defended an essay written by board member Gwythian Prins calling for the UK to leave the EU, which will be published by the Institute for Economic Affairs, the think tank responsible for the controversial "sock puppet" research.
The essay, Beyond the Ghosts – does EU membership erode Britain’s global influence?, which calls for the UK to leave the EU unless it changes "its very nature", comes after the commission was forced to revise its guidance for charities on campaigning in the run-up to the EU referendum after it was criticised by sector bodies and lawyers for being too heavy-handed.
Asked if it considered it appropriate for its board members to write essays of this nature, a spokesman for the commission told Third Sector: "It is expected and understood that Charity Commission board members may have professional interests outside their role at the commission. Professor Prins is an eminent historian and academic who writes on a wide range of subjects and whose professional interests are separate to that of his role as a board member."
One of the main objections to the commission’s original EU campaigning guidance was that it forbade key individuals in a charity from sending tweets that were "intended to influence voter behaviour". This was later amended to clarify that only tweets that "are not in line with the charity’s decided position could risk breaching our guidance".
Prins’s essay, whose observations included comparing the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership to Greece’s radical left-wing Syriza party, raises further questions about the Charity Commission’s relationship with the IEA, which between 2012 and 2014 published three reports arguing that government funds should not be used by charities to lobby politicians. This research was used in February by the Cabinet Office to justify its new anti-lobbying clause.
It emerged last month that the commission’s chair, William Shawcross, asked Prins in 2013 to meet the reports’ author, Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the IEA.
The Charity Commission is currently assessing concerns raised about the IEA by its former board member Andrew Purkis, who wrote to the regulator’s chief executive Paula Sussex last month complaining that some of the think tank’s campaigning activities were not within its charitable objects.
The commission’s spokesman said it had not yet been decided whether any regulatory action would be taken involving the IEA and Prins did not sit on any of the committees that had oversight of the regulator’s casework.
Prins’s essay has already been published on the website of Historians for Britain, a coalition of historians campaigning for fundamental changes to the terms of the UK’s EU membership. An abbreviated version of it will be published in an IEA book on Britain and the EU.
Commenting on the commission’s stance, Asheem Singh, director of public policy at the charity chief executives body Acevo, told Third Sector: "We are glad that Mr Prins has been allowed to pontificate on matters concerning the UK's withdrawal from the EU and that his bosses at the Charity Commission endorse such activity. Clearly the commission has had a welcome volte face and now sanctions full and frank debate on all sides.
"That is right and proper – irrespective of the various notes the commission has produced in the interim, the relevant guidance CC9 permits members of the charity sector to play a robust role on behalf of their beneficiaries in the most important public policy question of our generation."