Last September the government said that it accepted "in principle" a recommendation of the Public Administration Select Committee that charities should have to declare in their annual return to the Charity Commission how much they spend on campaigning.
But it added that, as a first step, it would encourage the sector to take the lead in improving the information that charities provide about their political and campaigning activities. It would also explore with the commission the potential for such information "to be captured and disclosed in a proportionate way through existing processes."
The tentative nature of this approach appears to have been thrust aside by the Charity Commission with its announcement this week of the proposal, subject to consultation, that charities should indeed from next year have to say in their returns how much they spend on campaigning – and how much they receive from government sources. What happened to the "first step" and the use of existing processes?
The commission, of course, does not have to slavishly follow the line taken by ministers, although there is often a tendency for it to work with the grain of Whitehall. But it appears to be pushing ahead with the select committee’s recommendation more forcefully than the Cabinet Office envisaged.
A look back at the select committee’s sessions on the subject suggests that the recommendation may have stemmed more from the opinions of some its own members than from the evidence presented to it by witnesses. Even Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a harsh critic of campaigning by charities, said that the distinction between a charity’s campaigning and its other activities would be "fairly arbitrary".
This problem of definition is further illustrated by the wording of the committee’s report, which at times refers to "campaigning" and at times to "political and communications work", as if the various terms were interchangeable. Definition was also raised in the response to the commission’s proposal from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which said it would be "unduly burdensome", not least because of the various elements of a charity’s expenditure which might or might not sit under the heading of campaigning.
The commission’s purpose, of course, is not to make life easy for the sector but to maintain public trust and confidence in charities. There is undoubtedly a harder government agenda towards charities at the moment, epitomized by the lobbying act, and there are some signs that the public may share that agenda to some extent.
But does the extent of public concern really justify this new measure? This is a question that will perhaps be explored in responses to the commission’s consultation, which ends on 2 August. There will no doubt be some in the sector who think the move is prompted less by public unease about charity campaigning and more by the noises made by a minority of vocal Conservative backbenchers who may or may not have most of the public behind them.