This year, the Charity Commission's encouragement of campaigning has gone further than ever before, the Government and the new Prime Minister came out in favour of it and a poll by think tank nfpSynergy indicated that more than 80 per cent of MPs thought charities should be free to engage in political campaigning.
But the situation has now descended into confusion. At the heart of the issue is the Charity Commission's CC9 guidance on campaigning, an interpretation of case law that says political activity must not become the "dominant" means by which a charity carries out its purposes and must remain "ancillary". Campaigning groups have long worried that the rule disadvantages small charities, and the coalition is calling for charities to be able to dedicate all their resources to political campaigning to achieve their charitable objectives.
In April, the commission released a Q&A document to clarify what was allowed. The tone was encouraging, but the 'dominant/ancillary' rule remained - and the commission was clear that it would continue to do so. "There's not much more we can do, because established case law restricts what can be a charitable purpose," Rosie Chapman, the commission's executive director of policy and effectiveness, told Third Sector at the time.
In September, however, the commission's board approved a paper that proposed re-writing CC9 to allow charities to pursue political activities to achieve their charitable objectives "even where this may mean devoting all of their income to doing so". The commission continues to stress that it is not in a position to change the law, but the proposal would effectively replace the dominant/ancillary rule, said to be derived from case law.
This change of heart came after expressions of Government support for campaigning, most notably in July's third sector review. "It is surely possible, in a well-run charity, for political activity to be 'dominant' within a charity and yet still enable it to further its charitable purpose," the review read. "The Government can see no objection to a charity pursuing (its charitable) purpose wholly or mainly through political activities."
Last week, however, Cabinet Office minister Ed Miliband said he was not in favour of allowing charities to commit all their resources to political campaigning (Third Sector Online, 18 October). Why the Government backtracked is unclear - perhaps it felt the need to distance itself from the word 'political', which inevitably brings with it connotations of party political activity. It leaves the commission in a difficult position. Should it continue with its plans to replace the dominant/ancillary rule, or revert to its original position?
It is also not clear what the Government is actually in favour of. Does it now want a distinction drawn between a charity's 'dominant' activity and 'all' its activity? Good luck to the commission in articulating that.
Three things are clear. First, the Tories oppose more political campaigning by charities. Second, no one thinks charities should be able to have a political purpose (though that doesn't stop them accusing each other of wanting it). And the campaigning coalition needs to reassess its own political campaigning.
Emma Maier is deputy editor of Third Sector