‘Never stray into party politics,’ Commission warns charities

12 Oct 2022 News

The chair of the Charity Commission has warned the sector never to “stray into party politics, promote or be seen to promote, a political party or candidate”. 

Speaking at the Commission’s annual public meeting today in Cardiff, Orlando Fraser urged charities to campaign with “tolerance and kindness” and ensure their activity reflects the interests of the causes they support. 

Fraser unveiled a new five-minute guide for charities on political activity and campaigning summarising the Commission's previous guidance. 

He also warned charities to “expect increased scrutiny” over their duty to show “prudence”, saying they must “understand the sacrifices [their] donors and volunteers are making in their continued support” during the cost-of-living crisis.

‘Campaign with tolerance and kindness’

Fraser mentioned this year’s Charity Awards 2022 where Tommy’s, the baby loss charity, won the Overall Award for Excellence for its Miscarriage Matters campaign, which convinced ministers to scrap a hugely damaging health policy that required women to have three miscarriages in a row before they could access basic treatment or support. 

He said the campaign was “well received across the political spectrum” and highly successful. 

“So, the law is clear that charities are free to campaign and engage in political activity in this way, shining a light on uncomfortable truths, engaging with those in power in the interests of the people and causes they serve. And when done well, campaigns of this nature can have immense impact. So, no, the law does not agree with those who say that charities should simply not dabble in politics at all.

“However, the law, rightly, also sets limits on what charities can do, and how, in relation to political activity. Charities must never stray into party politics – must never promote, or be seen to promote, a political party or candidate.”

Fraser reminded charity leaders that any campaigning and political activity should reflect the interests of their charities and not personal opinions.

“Debates on many issues are polarised, and personal, and serve to further entrench existing standpoints. This trend towards constant aggression presents a risk to our democratic culture,” he said.

“I think English and Welsh charities engaging in political activity can, and should, be different too. Charities can model a better kind of public discourse than the aggression we sometimes sadly see from the party political debate. They can help teach others how to inspire and inform, rather than stifle and poison, reasoned debate. They should campaign with vigour and energy yes, but I believe they should do so also with tolerance and kindness.”

Five-minute guide on political activity 

Fraser introduced a new five-minute guide for charities that seek to secure support for, change or oppose legislation or government policy.  

The guide stipulates that charities can get involved in campaign or political activity as long as it supports their purpose and is in their best interests and do so within the law.

It draws from guidance published in 2008, which advises charities to what extent they can get involved in this area and the issues trustees should consider.

Fraser commented: “We live in times of significant challenge, and indeed turmoil, and we can expect that political debates will come into all of our lives in the months and years ahead. We should expect vigorous exchanges about what is needed from government at this time.

“I fully expect charities to be part of this conversation. Charities give voice to those who go unheard, whose stories might otherwise never be told. And the sector has a long, proud history of pushing for meaningful change that improves the lives of their beneficiaries, and makes society fairer, and kinder.”

Difficult times ahead

On the cost-of-living crisis, Fraser acknowledged that the sector will face many challenges this winter and beyond and that its commitment to “service, kindness and resilience” will be needed to support people most at risk. 

He said: “It’s during times of difficulty and tension that charities come into their own. Offering not just practical support and succour, but a sense of hope and belonging. You often are the only bright element in a miserable situation.”

“[…] Charities have risen to other immense challenges many times over in recent years. I refer not just to the awful pandemic, of course, but also more recently in response to the war in Ukraine and the devastating floods in Pakistan.

“I have every optimism that charities will again meet the needs of the age, buoyed by the huge generosity of the British public, and the dedication and commitment of volunteers and those working in charities. Although we could give more by some international standards, the British public still gave almost £11bn to charity last year, and around 5.5 million people regularly volunteer. We should all be proud of this culture of giving, and of serving.”

‘Expect increased scrutiny’

Fraser urged trustees to “demonstrate prudence and sound financial stewardship” in the coming months.

He said: “The duty of prudence has been set in law for decades. It is not new. But getting this right is of particular importance during these straitened times. Expect increased scrutiny, and be prepared to show that you understand the sacrifices your donors and volunteers are making in their continued support.

“Show your beneficiaries that you are using every penny wisely, and for their benefit. Never forget that the funds you raise as trustees and senior leaders belong to the cause, or the people, your charity was set up to serve.”

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