NEWSMAKER: The firefighter - Richard Buxton, Chief executive, The Community Fund


I'm Jeremy Paxman," says the woman sitting opposite Richard Buxton, as I enter his office. "But I'm not very good at it." The Community Fund's chief executive had enlisted a colleague for a coaching session before a head-to-head that evening with the BBC's infamous interrogator-general.

Such an encounter can hardly have been in Buxton's mind when the fund authorised a routine £340,000 grant to the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) in August.

But following a very public intervention by Home Secretary David Blunkett, questioning whether the organisation was "political" and engaged in illegal activities, the fund has had to deal with an exhausting level of media attention and the frightening consequences of a tabloid-inspired hate campaign.

The Daily Mail's exhortation to readers to "vent their justifiable anger" at the fund for supporting asylum seekers rather than penniless ex-servicemen provoked a flurry of abuse. Chair Diana Brittain received death threats, while front-line staff had to endure abusive telephone calls and excrement and hypodermic syringes sent through the post.

Buxton, who as chief executive says he has been somewhat shielded from the effects of the campaign, is full of praise for the dedication of staff.

"The whole organisation has come through this with a determination to continue doing what we believe to be right."

And to its credit the fund has stuck to its guns. Last week it confirmed that the grant to the NCADC is to go ahead after a three-month inquiry, despite continuing "doubts" about the organisation expressed by Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell. But there are conditions.

First, the organisation must not use grants to provide support for individuals deported because of terrorism convictions. And second, its activities, publications and policies should not be "doctrinaire".

The first of these has the distinct appearance of a bone tossed to satisfy tabloid hounds. Buxton admits that the alleged terrorists identified in the press were not actually terrorists and have been given leave to remain in Britain and that the NCADC has not given any indication that it opposed the deportation of terrorists.

But the second has rather more practical and serious implications, not only for the NCADC but for all Community Fund grant recipients. Apparently the fund always had a policy which stated that recipients should not be "doctrinaire", according to Buxton.

But this was never enforced as part of grant terms and conditions to organisations that were not registered charities and therefore not subject to the Charity Commission's own guidelines on political campaigning. In future, it will be.

The fund is to go further and enforce the policy retrospectively, undertaking a sweep of the web sites of all organisations with live grants above £60,000 to check that "they have been complying with the policy on a voluntary basis".

But what does being "doctrinaire" actually mean? According to Buxton, it is "taking an absolute, non-negotiable position. If you have an organisation that believes that every single deportation of an asylum seeker, regardless of circumstances, is wrong. That is a doctrinaire position."

In an understandable attempt to fend off both Whitehall and Fleet Street, the fund seems to be proposing a crackdown on voluntary-sector campaigning, just as, ironically, the Government's own Strategy Unit report is calling for a lighter touch.

Doctrinaire is not the same as political. The Charity Commission's guidance on political activity, CC9, does not venture into whether charities take absolute, non-negotiable positions, only precluding party political activity, insisting that campaigns are based on reasoned arguments and asserting that the purpose of a charity cannot be political.

Many charities and voluntary organisations take "absolute, non-negotiable" positions as an integral part of fulfilling their charitable objectives. One of the most famous and popular charity campaigns of recent years, Drop the Debt - the call to completely write off Third Word debt - is doctrinaire by Community Fund standards, but did not seem to bother the Charity Commission.

Buxton is quite aware that CC9 may be rewritten in the near future and says the fund's position is an interim one which will be replaced with its own version of CC9 in due course.

In the intervening period, he doesn't anticipate the fund will be busy confronting "doctrinaire" charities. "I think that we won't come across many cases that give us cause for concern," he says.

And he is determined that the hysterical baying by The Daily Mail in the wake of the fund's decision to award the NCADC grant will not lead to a tempering of the fund's willingness to support unpopular groups.

The paper described the lottery body to its readers as "smug, elitist quangocrats who hold you in such contempt".

"Our grant-making is not going to be determined by one particular section of the community," says Buxton. "We are absolutely clear that we are going to continue making controversial grants." Just be pragmatic.


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