Commons clash on charity campaigning

Labour and Conservative MPs clashed in the House of Commons today over how free charities should be to engage in political campaigning.

In a debate on the Government’s third sector review, shadow Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said ministers were leading an “orchestrated campaign to widen the ability of charities to campaign”.

He said allowing charities to devote all their efforts to campaigning would be “incredibly damaging” and would affect public support for charities. It was a “remarkable coincidence”, he said, that the Charity Commission had decided to revise its guidance on charities and campaigning weeks after the third sector review highlighted unjustifiable restrictions on political campaigning by charities.

The commission’s new guidance is expected to abolish the restriction that campaigning by charities must be ancillary to their purposes and not their dominant form of activity.

For the Government, Cabinet Office minister Ed Miliband warned the Conservatives not to make a “historic mistake” by going back to the 80s, a time when charities such as Oxfam felt inhibited from campaigning. He said charities should be able to campaign “without having to ask ‘is this a dominant activity? Is the Charity Commission going to say that this is not allowed?’”

But Miliband said the Government was opposed to charities having political purposes and denied that the Government wanted to allow charities to spend 100 per cent of their resources on political campaigning.

Miliband was asked by a Conservative backbencher if he supported “the setting up and running of a charity largely for campaigning purposes”. Miliband said this was a matter for the Charity Commission.

Maude said he welcomed large parts of the third sector review but accused the Government of having a centralised approach to commissioning. “New Labour has an approach to governing that is extraordinarily centralised and controlling,” he said. “That’s why so much of their rhetoric on the third sector doesn’t ring true.”

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