Last week The Times and the Daily Mail ran stories about the proposal earlier this year from the Charity Commission, prompted by a report of the Public Administration Select Committee, that charities should declare in their annual accounts how much they spend on campaigning.
The idea has its origins in a "charities shouldn’t campaign" campaign by a number of Conservative MPs, and it remains to be seen whether the commission, after a uniformly hostile reaction from the sector to its consultation on the subject, will persist with it.
In researching their stories, the Times and the Mail happened upon and recycled a remark made in an interview with Third Sector a year ago by Gwythian Prins, a member of the commission board, that charities should "stick to their knitting". He had been talking in the light of another minor media frenzy about the pay of charity chief executives.
This week the new charities minister, Brooks Newmark, was asked by the journalist who wrote the previous week’s story in The Times whether he thought charities should eschew campaigning and stick to their knitting. Newmark, new to the brief and perhaps unused to the wiles of the press, fell into the trap, saying the role of charities was to help others and they should stay out of politics. He even repeated the knitting phrase himself.
The response on social media ranged from the amusing to the abusive, and Newmark has spent the rest of the week rowing back. He issued a statement that he meant only that charities should avoid party political campaigning, and was fortunate to receive an endorsement from Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the chief executives body Acevo, who is wise enough not to fall out with ministers unless it is absolutely necessary.
But it is hardly a propitious start for a new minister, and there will be those who suspect that he has had his ear bent by the faction in his party that is against any political activity by charities, not just party political campaigning, or that he is taking his agenda from the right-leaning press as it picks up on the views of that faction. It is too early to be sure, and we will no doubt hear more from him.
But the episode comes in the context of a general shift in the mood music about charities that needs careful monitoring. More air time is being given to those politicians who want to get charities out of policy issues such as child poverty, the treatment of prisoners or green belt planning policy, and back into the box where Lady Bountiful ministers discreetly to the deserving poor.
There are also some indications that the public is less inclined than it used to be to see charities as a good thing by definition and to give them the benefit of the doubt. How can the sector push back against all this without giving ammunition to its critics? This is the tightrope it has to walk between now and the election, and beyond.