The new code of practice announced a few weeks ago by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry got less attention than it deserved, but I was reminded of it when we signed off Macmillan's latest accounts.
A note says: "Macmillan is aware of public interest in financial support of charities by the pharmaceutical industry, and the following donations were received from pharmaceutical companies." It lists a number below what accountants call 'materiality' - a tiny percentage of the near-£100m we receive in voluntary income. Surprisingly, we aren't required to name names by the Companies Act or the new Sorp - why not?
In this case, size doesn't matter. I think it's important to disclose it for the same reason that I'm critical of those charities in the health sector that don't declare their income from the industry. A quick scan of annual reports shows how many that is. I draw attention to this not because we and the industry have conflicting goals, but because we share similar goals - those of ensuring that people with cancer get the best possible treatment and that everyone has the same chance of treatment.
But we serve different interests: in the case of the industry, it's their investors. They take huge risks, but have to see a return on that investment or there will be no more new drugs. By contrast with the US, where advertising directly to the consumer has led to great distortions in take-up and spending on drugs, it is not surprising the industry uses many different, often indirect means to promote its products in Europe. Building popular support for a drug that appears to have significant effects on a high-profile disease is one technique. This makes it very important that those influences are visible and defensible.
The idea that undisclosed influences can shape the conduct of charities is potentially corrosive of their public standing. The row about buying honours is another example. Honours may not have been bought, exactly - it's probably sub judice, so I should add "allegedly" - but decent, public-spirited people have been caught in the blast. Not only that, but potential donors to city academies have apparently been frightened off.
We live in an era of transparency, when the expectations and the means of scrutinising decisions are widespread. It may be uncomfortable, but it's probably one of the best things that could have happened to charities.