Interview: Commission's approach to campaigning is wrong, says Andrew Purkis

The former board member tells Susannah Birkwood that ministers are also being negative

Charity Commission
Charity Commission

It's five years since Andrew Purkis stepped down from the board of the Charity Commission. During the intervening period, he says, the environment for charity campaigning has changed dramatically.

"The cold, uncomprehending atmosphere campaigning organisations and charities have experienced over recent years is completely out of touch with the history of charitable causes in this country," says Purkis, who sat on the board of the regulator from 2006 to 2010 and is a trustee of the international development charity ActionAid and a consultant in the sector.

"I don't think it has been helpful to have a series of rather wet blanket-ish statements from several commission board members and from government ministers - sometimes using the very same words."

One of the most significant of these, says Purkis, was the comment by the chair of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, that he would step in to curb charities' campaigning activities if they "overstepped the mark" and act as a "policeman" if necessary. These remarks came during Shawcross's first speech in the post in 2012.

That speech, Purkis believes, signalled a step change in the commission's approach towards campaigning. "Since early 2013, the commission has handled the subject badly," he says, citing as a case in point the regulator's admonishment of Oxfam for a tweet about austerity last year.

A more recent example is Shawcross's interview in The Times in July, in which he said the RSPCA seemed to have lost sight of its original purposes by pursuing prosecutions and opposing government policy to cull badgers in certain areas in 2013. Purkis says those comments amounted to "sloppy and unfair" smears against the charity and undermined the commission's own guidance on campaigning, CC9.

Last November, the regulator announced that it would review CC9 after the general election. The guidance was last revised in 2008, when Purkis was on the board, and he believes it would be expensive and a waste of energy to revisit it so soon, except to make minor amendments to reflect recent updates to legislation.

"The sector has grown to live with the principles and posture of the current guidance," he says. "It would be divisive and destabilising to do a major review of what kind of activity is perceived as legitimate. Many fear any changes would make campaigning more restricted." The commission told Third Sector in July that it had no plans to revise CC9 "at present".

The commission's recent change in tone, Purkis says, has been accompanied by a more negative attitude from the government towards campaigns by charities. Here he refers to comments made by ministers including the charities minister Rob Wilson, who recently expressed concern about the RSPCA and the RSPB straying into the campaigning arena.

So does he think that charity campaigning is a bugbear of the Conservative Party in particular? "The truth is that many Tory politicians have spoken out against campaigning," he says. "You don't have to be Einstein to know this is probably because certain campaigns have obstructed government policy, which has got up their noses."

He admits he does not know if a Labour government would have been more tolerant in this regard, but adds: "It's completely mistaken to think the tradition of charity campaigning is restricted to one particular part of the political spectrum. Some of the most famous charity campaigners – William Wilberforce, the Mothers' Union – have been Tory."

Purkis believes that campaigning charities will fare best under the current government and Charity Commission leadership if they create a narrative that robustly explains why campaigning helps them pursue their charitable objectives. They could use this to rebut criticism from ministers or the regulator, he says.

"Charities must prepare themselves so they can explain why campaigning is one of the main ways of helping their beneficiaries. They shouldn't become so risk-averse that they don't do what is necessary for their cause."

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