Editorial: Campaigners will resist the lure of charitable status

Mathew Little

Last week, the Charity Commission published new draft guidance on human rights as a charitable purpose. Coming soon after less cautionary strictures on political campaigning by charities, the mood is shifting to a more permissive attitude towards organisations that try to change laws and influence politics.

But don't expect the regulator to be swamped with applications from campaigning groups wanting to convert to charitable status. Amnesty may be mulling it over, but Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have given no sign that it is on their agenda. Even the World Development Movement, a member of the Charities Bill Coalition, has shown no eagerness to convert.

Why the reticence? Part of the reason is that while the guidance has changed, the law hasn't. Campaigning organisations are deterred by the prescription that political activities must not dominate their work. And while this government wants to relax guidelines, a future administration could order a clampdown. For a campaigning group taking the leap to become a charity, that could be disastrous, as it is difficult to reverse the process - charitable funds can't be used for non-charitable campaigning.

The Government could easily liberalise the law so that a broad swathe of campaigning groups could sit easily within charitable status, while excluding partisan political activity. Highly politicised thinktanks like Civitas and IPPR already do. But that would involve challenging the conservative consensus of the Charities Bill. As things stand, it is possible that as a result of the 2005 Charities Act not one organisation will gain charitable status and not one will lose it. There are undoubtedly very valuable provisions in the Bill, but it is essentially a codification of changes that have already happened. Necessary, but not revolutionary.

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