Recent criticism of campaigning by charities is not so much a coherent campaign as an expression of frustration by politicians at the obstacles charities put in their way, according to the former Charity Commission board member Andrew Purkis.
"Charities got right up the noses of some members of the coalition government who felt that the bleat, bleat, bleat of charities was undermining their project of deficit reduction," he told an audience at the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at Cass Business School in London last night.
"They concluded that a powerful obstacle to their wishes was the charitable sector, and that accounts for their change of tone towards charities from 2012/13," he said. "This interacted with the perennial issue that politicians get fed up with single-issue groups and dislike their self-righteous tone.
"And then there’s the question of legitimacy. ‘Who are you?’ they ask. ‘We are the elected representatives.’ So I tend to think there is not really a coherent campaign but a coming together of these other factors."
Purkis, who was chief executive of charities including the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, was replying to a question after giving a lecture on the history of campaigning for charitable causes.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of Friends of the Earth, had asked him who was behind the current resistance to charity campaigning, which Bennett described as "a very good campaign".
In his lecture, attended by more than 100 people, Purkis argued that political campaigning by modern charities was firmly in the tradition of charitable campaigning, starting with the abolition of the slave trade and including the protection in the 19th and 20th centuries of children, animals, the elderly and the environment.
"By political activity, I do not mean party politics," he said. "I mean activity aimed at creating, changing or supporting any law, any state policies or administrative actions by state agencies – the definition used by the Charity Commission. It includes lobbying, campaigning, advocacy, public education and the focusing of support through the media.
"There is a topical context for revisiting the tradition of charitable political activity. Very senior people in the Conservative Party, including Oliver Letwin, Chris Grayling and George Osborne, and on the Charity Commission board have since 2012 been questioning the political activity of today’s charities.
"The relatively new chair of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, has named the politicisation of charities, which he failed to define, as a challenge on a par with fraud, terrorist infiltration and failure to safeguard children from abuse.
"The Charity Commission announced ambiguously that it may or may not review its current guidance on political activity by charities after the general election, and this hangs in the air. In fairness, one should acknowledge that the current Minister for Civil Society has said that charities are most definitely welcome in the political space but must not be party political.
"The Charity Commission board has fallen largely silent on the subject of political activity for some months, which is better than what they were saying before. Overall, however, the atmosphere still feels cold and uncomprehending."
Read Third Sector’s interview with Purkis, published in this month’s edition, here