Editorial: Campaigning by charities must be defended at all costs

The lobbying bill and restrictions on judicial review are the latest potential threats, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Potential restrictions on campaigning by charities are high among the concerns mentioned by Sir Stephen Bubb in his recent warning that the sector is facing the most hostile political environment for a decade.

Two sources of this concern are the government's proposal to restrict the use of judicial review of official decisions and its controversial lobbying bill. Ministers have pledged to amend the latter to meet the fears of charities, but the former remains a potent threat. In both cases, the battle is far from over and the outcome unclear.

Leaving aside these two specific initiatives, charity campaigning is of course governed generally by CC9, the Charity Commission's rules on the subject, which were last revised - and, many feel, relaxed - when Labour was in power. Will these be revisited?

Charity campaigning was hotly criticised by some witnesses and Conservative MPs in the hearings earlier this year of the Public Administration Select Committee on the working of the Charities Act 2006. But in its recent report the committee made no recommendation for the revision of CC9. It recommended instead that charities should say in their annual reports how much they spend on political and communications work. The government said it supported this "in principle" and would work with the commission to explore its potential.

The question is whether this is a serious proposition or an application of the time-honoured Westminster manouevre known as kicking it into the long grass. On balance, it would seem that everyone concerned has more important matters on their plate at the moment. At the commission itself, most effort seems to be focused on prioritising its core regulatory functions.

But the mood might change quickly as the pre-election period quickens. Bubb's prediction is that the pressure will continue to mount, especially if the sector expresses opposition to government proposals on social policy and welfare. And the right of charities to campaign on matters that lie within their legitimate charitable objects is vital to a healthy democracy and should be defended at all costs.

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