Talking Point: Campaigning

Ian Leggett and Francesca Quint reflect on the Charity Commission's new campaigning guidelines.

Ian Leggett, Director, People & Planet

These guidelines are definitely a step in the right direction, and I'm glad about the removal of the 'dominant/ancillary rule', which was a real constraint to activists and trustees because it was so vague. Now that point is much clearer.

But there's a deeper problem: the question of political purpose. Charities influencing the formation of public policy - in the broadest sense, whether it's animal rights, the environment, human rights or treatment of the elderly - should not be deemed political in the same way as parties and candidates.

Few people join political parties and many do not vote,yet everyone has an opinion on how people and the environment should be treated, and lots of people will join charities. We all want citizens to be involved in shaping public policy, so it's crucial that charities are able to fill that space. That's part of a broader debate that needs to be taken further.

The danger is that these guidelines will make things clearer only for existing charities unless the Charity Commission makes sure they are properly integrated into the registration process. Lots of us - People & Planet, Amnesty, the Burma Campaign - want very much to become charities. The dual structures we have now are a nightmare.

The third sector really needs to push to change the culture surrounding campaigning, not just policy, so that it is embraced rather than tolerated. Without that push from the sector to put more confidence in campaigning, trustees will not change their portfolios. At the commission, senior people must make a real and personal effort to reassure people and encourage them not to be nervous.

Francesca Quint, specialist charity barrister

The new guidelines have departed from the original, cautionary approach and have become clearer and more positive about political activity, which I welcome.

But the substance of the advice is not radically altered because the law has not changed, so anyone who was hoping they would will be disappointed.

The law doesn't encourage or discourage political activity, so this new guidance is not contrary to the law, but neither is it positively supported by the law. The commission has gone as far as it can without actually dis-applying the law.

Nothing will please everyone all the time, but on the whole I think this is much better than what we had before.

The area of political campaigning should be kept under review, but it's far too soon to be thinking about a change in the law to allow charities to become more political. It would be fraught with risks - the most important one being that charities could lose sight of public benefit.

The fact that fewer people vote or join political parties than they used to does not, by any means, mean that charities should fill the gap. There are plenty of pressure groups for that.

Topics:
Communications

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