Those who say that charities shouldn’t dabble in politics and should stick to uncontentious service delivery have completely lost sight of their own history.
How charitable campaigning has shaped Britain
Long before the Charity Commission was established in 1853, organisations pursuing what are now recognised as charitable causes were entering into the arena of public debate and decision-making to agitate for social and moral improvements. The template was the great movement to abolish the Slave Trade, accomplished in 1807, and later to abolish slavery itself throughout the British Empire, accomplished in 1833, just after the Great Reform Bill was enacted: so that the extension of the franchise and development of democracy went hand in hand with campaigning for a great moral and political cause.
This agitation had very deep and long roots in our history – for example, the use of petitions can be traced back to the reign of Edward 1st who died in 1307. This was not party political – Whigs and Tories, Charles James Fox and William Pitt – joined in the reform movement led in Parliament by the Tory William Wilberforce. But it was political in the sense now used by the Charity Commission: designed to achieve a change of law or practice by any part of national or local Government.
Many more reform movements championing what are now charitable causes burgeoned after that. Temperance and the licensing of drinking. Ending the degrading employment of children in factories and mines. Animal welfare. Women’s rights. The protection of the countryside from pell-mell development, and the creation of National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Green Belts round our great cities, and of planning systems to preserve the distinction between town and country. The reform of prisons. The rights of children. The dignity and inclusion of disabled people. The equality of gay people. The ending of discrimination against religious minorities. Clean air, banishing pea-souper smogs. Recognition of the role of carers. Combatting climate change and global injustices. These are just a few of the advances driven by political campaigning, awareness-raising and lobbying in pursuit of charitable causes.
So political activity in pursuit of charitable causes is not just some debatable add-on to “genuine” charitable work. It has always been an integral and fundamental part of what many charities do. If has always been crucial to the contribution made by charities to the good of society. It will and must remain so. That is because:
- Excluded and marginalised people cannot obtain their rights without entering the political arena and demanding a place in the sun
- The support of the public and Parliament are needed to secure the safety and protection of beneficiaries against all manner of harm
- Current laws and practice by government and its agencies, or lack of them, are often part of the problem for our beneficiaries.
Challenging Ill-informed tropes about charities
By the same token, we must challenge the lazy simplifications of some contemporary discourse about charities. Yes, some charities bring people and communities together and overcome divisions, but others quite rightly pursue unpopular and controversial causes. Some charities provide uncontentious services that everyone can support, but others stick their necks out in a way that angers those whose opinions and prejudices are disturbed. They are all pursuing charitable cases for the public benefit, so let us have no truck with simplistic and historically ill-informed tropes that describe only part of our diverse sector.
Good news: We can engage in political activity
Now there is some good news on this score. Compare and contrast the regulatory situation up to the mid-1990s with what we have today. In those glory days, Oxfam was told by the Charity Commission not to lend its name to securing either the abolition or retention of Apartheid in South Africa. They were told that a campaign to highlight distress in Cambodia under Pol Pot had been conducted with “too much vigour”; and that “it is not for charities to take issue with the deficiencies of the international community and seek to bring about change which is itself a political act”. Political activity was described in official guidance as “like the elephant, hard to describe but easily recognised”, leaving Trustees baffled as to what was permissible or not. This was all going on while I was in my working career.
The guidance was progressively clarified and liberalised in 1995, 2005 and 2008, and CC9 now makes it crystal clear that while charities must not be party political, they may engage in political activity in pursuit of their charitable objects. Such action cannot itself be the purpose of the organisation or become the sole reason for its existence, but it can absorb the lion’s share of resources and attention for a period if the Trustees believe that is the best way of pursuing their charitable cause. There are those who would like the definitions to be pushed further, but the current guidance gives very extensive scope to engage in political activities.
Moreover, that guidance has survived the undermining confusions of the William Shawcross years as Chair of the Charity Commission. There were negative noises about charities sticking to their knitting, there was a cat and mouse game as to whether CC9 would be revised, there was rhetoric about the so-called “politicisation of charities” as one of the key challenges faced by the Commission, and there was the restrictive guidance about charities’ activities during the EU Referendum campaign that was so flawed it had to be withdrawn and amended, but CC9 survived unscathed, and the hostile rhetoric eased and returned to its natural home, ie a not-very-well-informed kind of right-wing Conservative MP and predictable sections of the press.
An extreme form of gagging clause in Government grants introduced by Eric Pickles, and intended to be rolled out across Whitehall under Matt Hancock at the Cabinet Office, collapsed under the threat of judicial review instituted by a coalition of charities, though some grants clauses remain too restrictive. In summary, there is a pretty robust consensus now behind the principles of CC9: charities can engage in political activity in support of their charitable objects, so long as they avoid party politics, and we have shown repeatedly that if we stand firm against attempts to restrict our rights under CC9, we win.
Be of good courage
So my first main message to all of you and all those charities facing really difficult external policy environments – and how many aren’t? – is: Be of good courage. If you think the most effective way of pursuing your cause must include political activity, go for it. You are doing what charities have always done and should do if the interests of their beneficiaries require it. You are standing on the shoulders of countless charitable campaigners who have shaped our country and society. And if challenged, insist robustly on the absolutely clear recognition by our regulator that political activity can be not only a legitimate but an important way of fulfilling our duties to work for and with our users as effectively as we can.
- Now let’s turn to the dilemmas of setting about influencing policies and state practice for the better, if that is what our Trustees decide they want to do.
Inside or outside track?
Firstly, there’s the age-old question of whether to go for the inside track or the outside track – cultivating and lobbying insiders in the civil service and Parliament, or going public via campaigning in the press and social media, demonstrations, petitions and protest. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and our sector represents a whole ecosystem of different bodies pursuing different options along that spectrum. Each charity has to analyse at regular intervals the conditions of combat, as Lenin put it, and decide what strategy is best.
Here are some key variables to be considered:
- External: is anybody on the insider track interested in listening? Are there reasons to suppose opportunities will grow? Are they susceptible to rational and evidence-based dialogue, or to political pressure from beneath, or neither? What are the prospects for investment in either insider or outside tracks or both?
- What is your charity’s theory of change – what are the means by which you believe life can be made better in the long term for your beneficiaries? And is that theory still valid when you review it as part of your strategic review process, as the external environment changes, or must it be adjusted?
- Internal: What are the particular skills and strengths of your organisation, on which you must build? Few charities have the knowledge and track record to do everything, so you need to stick to whatever distinctive contribution you believe your charity can make.
- Could your political activity be most effective in collaboration with other organisations? Are the time-consuming difficulties of negotiating joint action outweighed by the possible greater impact of organisations acting in consort? Which bits are best done jointly, which bits are best left to individual charities?
- Please don’t forget that this does not have to be an either/or choice. It is often the combination of insider and outside action that works best. I remember my predecessor as national Director of the CPRE telling me that some of its branches were uncomfortable with campaigning and kept arguing for reasonable discussion with the policy makers instead. His reply was that when CPRE had led the first great campaign against the Thatcher Government’s proposals to deregulate the Green Belts, blowing those proposals to smithereens assisted by the righteous anger of many Conservative MPs, it was remarkable how much better the insider dialogue became, because Ministers and civil servants realised they had to listen.
When the going gets tough
Now for some thoughts about what to do when the going gets even tougher than usual, when campaigners and lobbyists alike feel they are banging their heads against a brick wall and everything is going in the wrong direction. I am well aware that many of you are feeling like that now.
We have been here before
Many charitable campaigns we have discussed earlier have taken years and years to come to fruition. Dogged persistence must remain part of our make-up. Imagine what it has been like for prison reform charities for decades. But those prison reform charities are still there, challenging and demonstrating what is happening and how improvements can be made, long after sundry hostile and difficult Ministers are all but forgotten. And we were inspired by Polly Neate earlier, when the housing crisis has got so vastly worse for year after year, but Shelter and its allies are not going to be daunted. So keep going for as long as the cause is just: that is what charities do.
Ministers and Governments come and go
It’s not too hard to remember just now that Ministers and Governments come and go, as they do at local authority level also. We are non-party political, so it’s vital we don’t get too obsessed with the Government or Minister of the day. Lay the groundwork for the future with other parties, and with other people within the ruling party. To take one example, Barbara Keeley, Shadow Minister for Civil Society, has proclaimed that charities should be “key influencers of government policy”, so there is an open invitation. And don’t leave it too late, until after the Manifestoes are written. In many policy areas, a sea-change may be coming, either as parties compete with each other in the run up to an Election or when a new Government takes over, or when the current Government changes.
And there is usually something useful that we can do with our political activity, even when the direction of policy is dire for our beneficiaries. Let me give an example from the refugee charity Safe Passage International, which exists to help refugees, especially children, find safe and secure routes to sanctuary, and of which I am Chair. The external policy environment in the UK could hardly be more awful. Yet Parliamentary pressure stoked by Safe Passage and its allies forced the Government to extend the Homes to Ukraine scheme to unaccompanied children fleeing Ukraine, after the Government at first neglected and subsequently refused to do so.
Then Safe Passage was able to use the Home Office/Department of Levelling Up Voluntary and Community Sector Engagement forum to submit written feedback on how best to extend the scheme in detail, drawing on the charity’s extensive experience of working with such children. Meanwhile, the charity is making representations to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child about exactly how the UK asylum system fails to be compliant with the Convention; and briefing the House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee on family migration. There’s nearly always something useful to be done, and it beats despairing or just sticking to service delivery.
Charities are vectors and generators of hope
Finally, let’s not forget that we are vectors and generators of hope. Charities always have been. That has a value in itself for our users and beneficiaries and all those who support our cause, however difficult things may be. No problem is too large to stop us trying for a better world. Today’s problems are truly daunting: climate change, gross inequalities, trafficking and modern slavery, grave poverty looming for many families and children, gross global injustices. But they are no more daunting than the legal and entrenched slave trade and slavery were. Nor the systematic patriarchy blighting the life chances and rights of women. Nor the vast vested interests in child labour. Not the centuries-long discrimination against and persecution of religious minorities. Nor the religious and cultural oppression of gay people. Nor the torture and neglect of animals. Where there are charities ready to take up even such monstrous challenges, there is hope.
Conclusion: Let’s get on with it
So let’s be of good courage, secure in our right to pursue political activity in support of our charitable objectives, and get on with it as our predecessors did in the proud history of charitable campaigning and lobbying. Thank you.