Fury as commission chair says charities should not be involved in 'party politics and culture wars'

Baroness Stowell is roundly criticised by voluntary sector figures after writing a piece for the Mail on Sunday newspaper

Tina Stowell
Tina Stowell

The chair of the Charity Commission has found herself at the centre of another row with charity leaders after she warned charities not to engage in "party politics and culture wars".

Writing in the Mail on Sunday newspaper, Baroness Stowell said: “There’s more than one way to help those in need, but if you want to improve lives and strengthen communities through charity, you need to leave party politics and the culture wars out of it.”

Many in the sector were quick to question whether the chair had even read the regulator’s own guidance, which says that a charity can engage in political activity and campaigning providing it is done in support of its charitable purposes.

Caroline Slocock, director of the think tank Civil Exchange, described it as “astonishing” that it appeared the commission’s chair had not read its own guidance.

Andrew Purkis, a former commission board member, wondered how charities with clear aims could respect the view of everyone.

One example he highlighted in a tweet was the idea that a domestic abuse charity should respect the view of individuals who engaged in violence against women.

Rhodri Davies, head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation, also said it was ludicrous that charities needed to exist on both sides of every argument.

He tweeted: “Charities aren't ‘getting involved in culture wars’ – they're being deliberately dragged into them by articles like this.”

Karl Wilding, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, pointed out that people from across the political spectrum used charities as a means to further their point of view, including the newspaper the article was placed in.

Caroline Fiennes, director at the consultancy Giving Evidence, said on Twitter: “Charity should be separate from party politics, says #charity regulator, who was appointed to that role by the Tories, is a Tory peer, worked in Tory HQ, and was senior staffer for a Tory leader.”

Matthew Sherrington, a voluntary sector consultant, responded to a tweet by the regulator by saying: “I trust you know your chair is collapsing your institutional credibility with this trite, shallow nonsense.”

The commission did not respond to a question from Third Sector about whether Stowell had read the commission’s own guidance on campaigning and political activity.

It also did not respond to a question on whether there was any evidence to support Stowell's assertion that “many people seek out charities as an antidote to politics, not a continuation of it”.

But it did highlight how its chief executive, Helen Stephenson, had made a similar point in a blog post last year, ahead of the most recent general election.

A Charity Commission spokeswoman said: “In her article, the chair makes the point that the environment in which charities operate now is different from that experienced in the past, and that divisions beyond those that are strictly party political run deep in society. 

“Charities and their leaders should be mindful of this as they make decisions about campaigning and political activity.”

The regulator said that there would be no change to its guidance.

It is not the first time Stowell has come under fire for a speech this year.

In October she was accused of attacking “lefty lawyers” in a “patronising” keynote address at the Charity Law Association conference.

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