“Do not lend your name to securing the abolition of Apartheid”: Charity Commission’s Glory Days, 1991

On 8 April 1991, 24 years’ ago to the day, Charity Commission efforts to repress the political activities of charities reached their high tide mark.

On that day, a report commissioned by the Charity Commission from Sheena M St Clair Smith (an Assistant Commissioner) was signed off and submitted. It was to be published by the Board of Commissioners a month later with a covering note endorsing its overall conclusions. The subject of concern was the campaigning activities of OXFAM. Plus ca change. There had been a series of skirmishes with the Trustees of OXFAM about complaints concerning individual campaigns, but when the Commissioners heard about a fresh campaign for peace and development in Southern Africa – calling for further aid, cancellation of debts owed to the British Government and British banks, and the maintenance of agreed sanctions until democracy had been achieved – they concluded that OXFAM’s Trustees had paid insufficient heed to previous warnings, so they commissioned a wider investigation into the charity’s campaigning activities as a whole.

These are some of the findings of Sheena Smith’s investigation:

– a campaign about the distress in Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime and calling for changes in UK and other Government policies “had been prosecuted with too much vigour”.

– a book about Cambodia, Punishing the Poor (1988) “exceeds the guidelines in its political tone. The charity should have confined itself to identifying those political/social/economic/environmental factors which affected their beneficiaries and the effectiveness of their work and not sought to promulgate political change”.

– leaflets detailing recommendations to the British Government to engage publicly with the South African black opposition and maintain, rather than relax, pressure on the South African Government, had been withdrawn by OXFAM at the Commission’s request in April 1990, two months’ after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.

– “The charity should not be lending its name to securing the abolition of otherwise of apartheid in general or the continuance of sanctions in particular. These are political questions which are not within the remit of the charity.” This was written fifteen months after Nelson Mandela’s release.

– “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.”

“How beneficiaries or supporters might be thought to regard an avoidance of a public position on apartheid should not influence trustees; their duty is to carry out their trusts. Having presented a balanced account of the results of research, the proper course is to leave the public to make up its own mind.”

Many people in the charity sector reading this today might find it absurdly old fashioned. How could anybody take such views seriously today? It is true that this particular report probably mis-stated even the Commission’s existing guidance at that time, let alone the revised guidance produced from 1995 onwards or the version of CC9 current today. It is also true that the positions advanced by Ms Smith were out of touch with the practice and intelligent opinions of many different charities with a political dimension to their work. The Commissioners were still heavily legalistic in their experience and outlook. Surely we could not go back there?

Do not be so sure. The Commission has repeatedly and publicly made it clear over the years that “there is virtually no case-law directly on the question of political activity by charities. And the little there is, is not especially illuminating. The legal rules need to be deduced from cases that are concerned with charitable status, and from the law that governs incidental and ancillary activity of charities.” That allows much latitude and discretion to the Commission of the day to reinterpret the rules according to the circumstances of the time – or its own political outlook. The positions adopted by Ms Smith seem to me very similar to the public position adopted today by some Conservative MPs, including Charlie Elphick who is an influential member of the Public Administration Select Committee which oversees the work of the Charity Commission. Many would add that, once again, as in 1991, the members of today’s Charity Commission do not include people with full time working experience in charities and may be out of touch. If campaigning charities were again to offend the interests and views of a Government, which also chooses the Chair of the Charity Commission and pays for and influences its work, do not assume that at least some of what has been given since 1991, by way of liberalisation and understanding of charities’ role in a democratic society, could not be taken away again. Indeed, perhaps some of it has already been.

Future blogs will look at:

– why many charities get political (as defined by the Charity Commission) and why this is a vital part of our shared history

– whether the Charity Commission has ever really had very much effect on campaigning charities

– how its Guidance on political activity has changed, and

– how its current efforts to discourage the “politicisation” of charities are getting on. Knitting and all that.

Follow me on Twitter @AndrewPurkis.


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