Charity Commission postpones plan to add question on campaign spend to annual returns

Its proposal to pursue the issue in future draws a critical reaction from the NCVO, Acevo and Navca


The Charity Commission has put on hold proposals to add a new question in the annual return asking charities how much money they spend on campaigning. It plans to revisit the issue next year.

Charity umbrella bodies welcomed the move not to add the question at the moment but strongly criticised the plan to return to the proposal in a year's time.

The commission has today announced three new questions that will be added to the annual return for financial years ending in 2015.

The three new questions ask how much income charities received from central or local government contracts of grants; whether the charity has a policy on paying its staff; and whether it has reviewed its financial controls during the reporting period.

In June, the commission launched a consultation on changes to the 2015 annual return, including the proposal that charities should declare how much money they had spent on campaigning.

The proposals received broadly negative reaction from the sector, with the campaign spend proposal particularly unpopular.

The NCVO said of today's announcement that there would be "no logic" to returning to the proposal in a year's time, and said the commission needed to proceed carefully "in order to avoid giving the impression that it is doing the bidding of a handful of unjustified critics of charity campaigning."

Acevo said that the proposal was "pandering to a meaningless and infantilised debate that suggests charities should put up and shut up".

In a statement today, the commission said it had reflected on the concerns raised during the consultation and that it "recognises that including such a question at this time would create a significant amount of work for charities".

The regulator said it "maintains that charities’ campaigning expenditure is a matter of public interest and will revisit the issue when it considers changes to the annual return for 2016."

Another proposal, that charities with incomes of between £10,000 and £500,000 were asked additional financial information, was also opposed by the sector. The commission said it had dropped this after taking into account sector concerns, and would instead explore whether the information could be harnessed through "a technological solution – for example, the introduction of accounting software".

All charities with gross incomes or total expenditure of more than £10,000 in a year must file their returns with the commission within 10 months of their financial year-end.

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, said the proposal about campaigning spend was unworkable. 

"There would be no logic to putting forward the same proposal in a year's time," he said. "Trying to put a meaningful single figure on campaigning will be as impossible then as it is now.

"In accounting for and communicating all areas of charities' operations, we should look to more holistic measures that can be genuinely illuminating and aid rather than hamper public understanding.

"While I welcome moves towards genuine transparency, it is curious to single out this area of spending exclusively," said Etherington. "The commission will need to proceed carefully in order to avoid giving the impression that it is doing the bidding of a handful of unjustified critics of charity campaigning."

Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, said: "Declaring spending on campaigns has nothing to do with transparency and everything to do with pandering to a meaningless and infantilised debate that suggests charities should put up and shut up.

"Our view is clear: it would be a dereliction of duty for any charity to see injustice or poverty and not speak up about it – and a dereliction of duty for the regulator to encourage it."

Peter Horner, policy officer at the local infrastructure body Navca, said the proposals about campaigning spend would prove "disproportionate and impractical" for smaller charities, and welcomed them being shelved.

He said: "We will also oppose any future plans to re-introduce the proposal on campaigning expenditure. This is a further attack on the independence of charities to freely campaign in a non-political way."

In a statement Paula Sussex, chief executive of the commission, thanked those who took part in the consultation: "The public rightly expects charities to be accountable and transparent. They also expect us to regulate effectively and to use the tools at our disposal to do so. This additional information will help achieve both aims. I hope it will also encourage trustees to monitor their charity’s financial controls and carefully consider what they pay their staff."

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