Editorial: Charities should review how they guard against political bias

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations is consulting the sector on its recommendations about a subject that is bound to be controversial, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

When charities come under criticism, there are essentially two choices: one is to pull the duvet over your head, refuse to engage and wait until the horrid people go away; this is a quite a common response in the sector. The other is to think carefully about the criticism, assess what’s justified, and try to improve matters.

The better choice is the second one, even though it is more difficult. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has, to its credit, adopted it. It did so over chief executives’ pay, and came up with recommendations for greater transparency that deserve to be universally adopted; and it has done so again on the question of charities and perceived political bias.

Not long after the last election, some commentators started to contend that charities were a nest of displaced Labourites acting as an unofficial opposition to the government. That theme of political bias is present in many of the attacks on political campaigning by charities and lurks in the agenda underpinning the lobbying act. The NCVO’s draft proposals for making sure that such criticism is unjustified were published this week, with an invitation for the sector to comment on it. What they say is especially relevant in the light of  Charity Commission decisions on allegations of political bias against the IPPR and Oxfam, which also came out this week.

The heart of the document, Upholding Charities’ Reputation and Independence, is the section on political neutrality, which argues that there are some roles in charities where an individual’s party political involvement might risk compromising the perception of the charity's political neutrality. It says charities might want to keep a register of the political activities of trustees and senior staff, conduct risk assessments and consider making the register public.

The first comment on the news story about this on Third Sector’s website consisted simply of the word "what?!", followed by multiple additional question and exclamation marks. The sense of offence is instinctive. Political activity by citizens is normal and desirable: what business is it of our employers and the world at large if you or I wish to chair the local Conservative association or stand as a Labour councillor or MP? Senior civil servants and public appointees have to declare their political activities, but charities are not part of the public sector.

The difficulty, however, is that charities are required by law to be politically impartial, yet the campaigns they may legitimately conduct in furtherance of their charitable objects often chime with proposals by political parties, or are adopted by them. This is a tightrope walk where every step brings the risk of a tumble and extra safety measures are only sensible. Charities are also accountable for a lot of public money, derived from citizens either involuntarily by taxation or voluntarily by donation, and are therefore under an obligation to spend the money properly.

The tension is between, on the one hand, the sound impulse of transparency and, on the other, concern about how the information revealed might be used by critics and opponents. The presence on your staff of two former Labour party political advisers, or of two card-carrying Conservatives on your board of trustees, can give rise to a perception of bias if you are involved in a campaign that happens to coincide with the policies of the party in question, even if your internal procedures and safeguards have eliminated any actual bias. It’s also possible to foresee a situation in which a charity became so concerned about this whole area that it avoided appointing the best person for a particular job because the person was politically active – and then what price that charity’s independence and effectiveness? Underlying the whole problem is the truism that some charities seek social reform, are therefore more likely to attract staff with Labour allegiances, and as a result will always be under suspicion from Conservatives.

The NCVO proposals are going to be controversial and deserve the widest possible debate. The document emphasises that each trustee board must make its own decisions about a register and its publication. But the crucial first step, surely, is for trustee boards to get the subject on their agendas so they can decide what is right for their charity and reduce the risk of being caught on the hop in some way as the election campaign gathers pace.

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