Outside Edge: Watch the critters scurry

Despite all the guff, the slogans and the lies, the election gives charities the chance to ask difficult questions of potential governments, writes Nick Cater.

Politics is, of course, far too important to be left to politicians, so charities should seize on these brief moments of electioneering to reverse their usual reluctance to touch the subject with a bargepole.

No matter that with only a couple of weeks to go most people are already bored by the slogans and lies; far too much of this election is about subjects directly of concern to charities for them to pretend it's none of their business.

Guidelines from the Charity Commissioners (Third Sector, 13 April) point out the obvious - no cash for candidates, show no preferences and don't do what they do and nick postal votes on the sly. But they also make it clear that, if it's consistent with their aims, charities are perfectly entitled to advocate on behalf of their beneficiaries.

The commission says charities can approach candidates "setting out the charity's concerns and asking for the candidate's opinions on them", and invite "candidates and political party representatives to public meetings about issues on which the charity is campaigning".

But, crucially, comparisons are barred: "The charity must steer clear of explicitly comparing its views (favourably or otherwise) with those of the political parties or candidates taking part in the election. They must leave it to the electorate to make any comparison with the respective political parties' positions and draw their own conclusions."

Some charities have taken up the challenge. For example, Barnardo's has called for all parties to put the interests of children first, reminding the Government that its efforts to lift children from poverty are behind schedule and demanding a change in the law on child prostitution.

The barnstorming approach of Crisis under chief executive Shaks Ghosh echoes non-voters' mass meetings with candidates in the days before the universal franchise. It is linking up with The Big Issue in the North for a roadshow in which homeless people - some no doubt effectively denied a vote by the lack of a postcode - question candidates and ask them to back the fight against homelessness.

Not only is the election a chance to talk about what matters to your stakeholders and get them active with myth-busting media guides, but it's also the only real chance in five years to go beyond grinning or growling at the Government and put all the parties under the charitable spotlight.

In examining reality versus political guff, charities don't have to catch them out, just - like good journalists - ask the right questions. As American satirist PJ O'Rourke said: "We journalists don't have to step on roaches. All we have to do is turn on the kitchen light and watch the critters scurry."

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