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Rallying cry

Rallying cry
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Rallying cry

Finance | Gareth Jones | 17 Jan 2008

The report of the advisory group set up to explore the extent to which charities should be able to campaign politically is radical and hard hitting, and in itself provides a great example of how to get a message across clearly to effect change. And if its proposals that there should be no limit to the extent in which charities can campaign are acted upon, it could significantly enhance the sector's contribution to public policy debate.

Helena Kennedy and her team take particular issue with the current Charity Commission guidance (CC9) that states that charities can only undertake political campaigning if it is ancillary to their core activities in the long-term. It is hard to support the argument that this exists simply because of a fear that removing it would politicise the charity brand and thus damage trust and confidence in the sector if taxpayers felt they were subsidising political causes. Charities have always been at the forefront of change, and long may it continue. As the report itself identifies, charity and politics are not intrinsically different. Surely charitable purposes such as the relief of poverty or the advancement of human rights are themselves inherently political.

Core to the issue is that as well as confusion over the semantics of what constitutes political campaigning, there seems to be a muddle over what charities can and cannot do under the rules as they stand. There is a contradiction between CC9 and the Communications Act clause that ads can't be political, and a difference in what you can say in a broadcast advert and in print.

The advisory group is calling on the Charity Commission to substantially reinterpret the ancillary rule in its planned revision of its CC9 guidance on campaigning later this year. However, while the Commission itself has welcomed the report, it rightly points out that there are limits to what is possible within existing charity law, which might well see some of the advisory group's good ideas remain just that. But if the report achieves nothing more than encouraging the Commission to at least clarify its guidanceon what is and isn't allowed as things stand under the present framework, it will have been partly successful in its own campaign.

Sector leaders

It is probably a slightly dangerous exercise to look back at leader comments from the past to see if things worked out as predicted, but the thoughts expressed in this space a year ago, when Ed Miliband had just been appointed as head of the newly created Office of the Third Sector, are worth rehashing. While it wasn't exactly going out on a limb to state that the creation of a dedicated department within government dealing with charities might be less effective if Miliband was to move onto greater things in year's time, it is interesting that this is now exactly the situation that the sector potentially finds itself in. An impressive performer, Miliband can probably reasonably expect promotion in Gordon Brown's first raft of ministerial appointments, especially given his past role as adviser to the Chancellor.

The question is whether the OTS has achieved enough momentum within its first year to enable it to thrive with or without Miliband. While there is healthy debate about what impact the OTS has had beyond talking up a storm, there are still a number of burning issues to be resolved if the sector is to be as effective as the government wants it to be, which Miliband himself acknowledges. It is encouraging therefore that the OTS has recently made a four deputy director appointments reporting to director general Campbell Robb, to strengthen its work. What the OTS needs to do now it has organised itself as it wishes, is deliver in these areas of concern, be that with Miliband at the helm or someone else. If there is to be a change it is probably better that his replacement is someone on the way up who may at least continue to champion the sector when they move on, then someone on the slide. And that will be the key thing to look for in any new appointment that is made, if Ed heads off, when assessing where the sector really stands in Brown's view.

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