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Should think tanks be charities at all?

There are some senior figures in the Conservative Party who are not very keen on campaigning charities. Oliver Letwin, now Minister of State at the Cabinet Office with the role of providing policy advice to the Prime Minister, was more vocal than most about this before the election.

There is a certain irony, then, surrounding the case of Atlantic Bridge, an educational charity which was set up by Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for Defence, and has had Conservative luminaries including the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, on its advisory board.

The irony comes because this week’s regulatory report by the Charity Commission on Atlantic Bridge leaves the indelible impression that this is a campaigning organisation. It devotes itself to advancing a version of the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US that was in the ascendant in the Thatcher-Reagan years.

But the commission’s rap over the knuckles for Atlantic Bridge comes not because it has campaigned – campaigning is permissible for charities if it is pursuit of their charitable objects. The censure comes because it promoted a view of transatlantic relations that was closely aligned with the Conservative Party.

The commission has told Atlantic Bridge that if it wants to conform to its educational charitable purpose it should approach its subject matter in a manner that is less party political, and that to demonstrate its public benefit it should provide more information about its activities.

This time it’s the Tories. But the mind drifts back to the case of the Smith Institute, which was similarly criticised by the commission two years ago for not keeping sufficient distance from the policies of the Labour Party. Some politicians and policy wonks, it seems, just can’t resist trying to use charities for political purposes.

The commission said in 2008 that it was going to produce additional guidance about how how think tanks can conform with the requirement for educational charities to provide public benefit, but this has not yet materialised.

In the meantime some commentators have suggested that the regime for think tanks should be more relaxed than for other charities because their reason for being, and the benefits they bring, are essentially political – and often specifically party political.

This is arguably true. But perhaps the best way of squaring the circle is to veer the other way and be much more careful about granting charitable status to think tanks. Indeed, when you look at the particular focus of Atlantic Bridge and the people involved in it, you have to wonder how it ever got charitable status in the first place.

  • Stephen Newton

    I am the complainant in the Atlantic Bridge case and think it is wrong to describe the Atlantic Bridge as a think tank.

    At no time has it ever commissioned or published any research.

    It spent its money awarding ‘Margaret Thatcher Medals of Freedom’ and helping Conservative MPs attend dinners in LA with Fox News film reviewers. It also promoted one of William Hague’s books.

    There is certainly room for charities that conduct genuine research and education programmes, but this never pretended to be one of those.

  • Stephen Cook

    Stephen – I defer to your greater knowledge on this one because I know you have watched it closely. Atlantic Bridge may never have done any research, but the commisson report describes one of its objects as “research into relations between Europe and North America…” So maybe it is more a think tank in theory rather than in practice, just as it is an educational charity in theory….

  • Fiona White

    I think you’re absolutely right Rachel and our new graduate, Charlotte, placed through Charityworks is proving to be a real gem. I was concerned about throwing too much at her but she is really lapping it up and coming back for more. I would also add another C to your list – Confident. By this I don’t mean brash or forceful but self-assured and able to hold their own in meetings and conversation. I’m looking to what more we will learn from each other and to following her career after she moves on, when hopefully we will be in the position to start again with another talented young graduate.