Former Charity Commission board member says regulator should look into think tank

In a letter to commission chief executive Paula Sussex, Andrew Purkis says the activities of the Institute of Economic Affairs do not meet the regulator's guidelines for providing information or education

Andrew Purkis
Andrew Purkis

A former Charity Commission board member has called on the regulator to review the charitable status of the think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Andrew Purkis has also asked the regulator to consider whether a publication about what should be in the Conservative Party manifesto, put out jointly by the charity with the non-charitable Taxpayers’ Alliance, was in breach of the commission’s guidance on political activity by charities during a general election campaign.

The commission said it was assessing whether the joint publication, What Should be in the Conservative Party Manifesto?, was in line with its guidance.

The IEA published the controversial "sock puppets" report in 2012, which said state funding for voluntary organisations that lobby government "subverted democracy and debased the concept of charity". It said today it was confident that all of its activities fell within Charity Commission guidelines.

Work carried out by the IEA in this area was quoted by the government when it announced its anti-lobbying clause, designed to prevent charities from using funds from public bodies to lobby government, although the proposals were subsequently watered down.

The charity, which was founded in 1955 and describes itself as the "UK’s original free market think tank", has the charitable objects of "the promotion and advancement of learning by research into economic and political science and by educating the public therein", according to its entry on the Charity Commission’s online register.

In a letter to Paula Sussex, chief executive of the commission, Purkis says he is concerned that the charitable advancement of education is not the exclusive purpose of the IEA, and asks that the charitable status of the organisation be reconsidered urgently.

He says Charity Commission guidance states that if the purpose of providing information or education was to persuade people to form specific conclusions, this was not education.

Commission guidance says this means "researching and presenting information in a neutral and balanced way that encourages awareness of different points of view where appropriate", according to Purkis’s letter.

He says the IEA’s position is that society’s problems are best dealt with by individuals and organisations interacting with each other freely without interference from politicians and the state, meaning government action should be kept to a minimum.

He says statements from the charity imply that part of the purpose of the IEA’s work is to promote a specific set of policy outcomes and ways of ordering society.

"That part is not an educational purpose about learning, ideas or ways of understanding," writes Purkis. "That part of the purpose is political as the commission has defined it. The purpose of shrinking the state does not become any less political simply because it derives from a particular way of thinking and learning about economics and politics."

He says these desired policy outcomes form a predetermined position, which is controversial because many people believe there is an important role for the state in areas such as environmental protection and welfare standards.

"Minimising the state is therefore held by many to be a purpose that may often be against the public interest," says Purkis.

He says the commission should consider the IEA’s charitable status because it is "potentially damaging to the reputation of charitable education and unfair to all the educational charities that strive to adhere conscientiously to the charity law definition of advancing education, if another is allowed to advance a partly political purpose while claiming to be advancing education exclusively".

Mark Littlewood, director general of the IEA, said: "I’m touched by the level of interest Andrew Purkis continues to show regarding our output and remain entirely confident that all of our activities fall entirely within Charity Commission guidelines."

A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said the regulator had contacted the IEA about its publication with the Taxpayers’ Alliance and was assessing whether the charity was in compliance with its guidance.

"Our guidance makes clear that all campaigning and political activity by charities must further or support charitable purposes, and that such activity must never be party political," she said.

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