Acevo chief executive Sir Stephen Bubb appeared before a
committee of MPs recently to issue a stirring defence of the idea that
charities must be allowed to campaign for what they believed in.
I’ve had a bit more time to think about it than Sir Stephen,
and I reckon the difference is that Shelter campaigns on behalf of a distinct
and identifiable group of beneficiaries, whereas the Taxpayers’ Alliance
represents a point of view. Also, Shelter doesn’t exist just to campaign, but
provides services to those beneficiaries.
But the fact that someone as eminent as Stephen Bubb found
it difficult to pin down an answer shows how hard it is to lay down hard
and fast rules. To try to do so is to wade into a quagmire of vague
I realised what a grey area is was recently when I found
that I had argued for both more liberal and tighter laws on charity
(There’s a term for this – cognitive polyphasia – which was
originally coined by an ad man who doubtless saw it as an opportunity to make a
quick buck. It defines, for example, our ability to believe simultaneously that
there is almighty God looking after us, and that he won’t mind if we never go
After a bit of internal soul-searching, it was obvious what
the deciding factor was: whether the campaigning charities happened to agree
For example, three months ago we ran a series of stories
about how charities had effectively been kicked out of the debate on AV by
aggressive tactics on the part of “No” campaigners.
At the time, I read this, and I was outraged. Charities, I
thought, should be free to speak their minds. They should obviously be allowed
to campaign for a change in the law that made voting much fairer.
Shortly afterwards, however, I read a piece by another
charity, campaigning against GM food, which I happen to think is quite a good
idea in many parts of the world.
I realised that charities were campaigning for any number of
things I was opposed to: an end to nuclear power, looser laws on
homeopathy, more religion in schools.
And I found I was irritated because these people, through
Gift Aid, get tax relief, and that means my taxes are funding people who
promote these ideas.
MPs didn’t really seem to have any definitive argument for
or against charity campaigning, either. I got the impression they were mostly
annoyed that it took up a lot of space in their inbox, and wished the sector
would just shut up.
All of this leaves the Charity Commission in an invidious
position. The regulator got a fair amount of flak for refusing to issue a
definitive judgement on the AV debate, but it’s an impossible thing to do.
Campaigning needs to be judged on a case-by-case basis, and you can often only
rule after the event.
However charities know what’s good for their beneficiaries,
and should trust themselves. If they think that campaigning is what’s needed to
better the lot of their service users, they should have the courage of their
convictions, and get cracking.