Charities’ political activities: a force for good in public life

Evidence to House of Lords Select Committee on Charities

The Positive Role of Charities in Public Policy and Awareness


  1. I am Andrew Purkis, and am a Trustee of ActionAid International and Executive Director of a grant-giving charitable Trust. I spent my career in the charity sector as Assistant Director of NCVO, Director of the CPRE (Council for the Protection of Rural England), Secretary for Public Affairs to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Chief Executive of The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and later of the Tropical Health and Education Trust. I have also been the Chair of four UK charities and Trustee of two others. I submit this evidence in an individual capacity only.
  2. I have kept the focus on charities’ role in public policy, and tried to keep it brief. I shall be very happy to furnish more detail or references on request. We are talking here about political activity as defined by the Charity Commission: not only campaigning in the narrower sense but also insider lobbying, presentation of arguments and information, and media work, designed to influence legislators, Government or state administrative decisions and practice. All of that is how charities play their part in the polis. Charities’ political activity must not be party political in nature.
  3. Glancing even briefly at our history, we see that voluntary sector advocacy for what are now charitable causes has had a central role in what most people would regard as progressive social advances. The great agitations to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, and then Slavery itself, set the template for many more agitations for justice and moral improvement in the years to come, with both religious and secular charities to the fore. To take a few examples, there were the movements for temperance and licensing of drinking; for animal welfare; for the rights of children and against the cultural presumption that parents could do whatever they liked with their children; for women’s rights; for equality for gay people; for the reform of prisons; for a dignified life for disabled people; for the proper recognition and support of carers; for protection of the environment and natural beauty, the creation of National Parks and green belts – and on and on. It is the official position of HMG, as articulated by the Minister for Civil Society Rob Wilson, and of the Charity Commission, that this is a very important contribution of the charity sector to our national life – it’s just that the Government confuses this message with others (especially in trying to justify the anti-advocacy clause) and the Charity Commission Board has omitted to mention it at all for most of the last four years, preferring to focus on what they see as risks. It was very striking how negative and discouraging was the guidance of the Charity Commission for England and Wales on charities role in the debate about the EU Referendum, and how positive by comparison was their Scottish counterpart, basing guidance on the same law.
  4. Open your newspapers today. Many topical issues have been placed there wholly or in part by long term political activity by charities. Inequality. Tax avoidance. The Living Wage. The 0.7 per cent of GDP devoted to overseas aid. The housing crisis. Modern Slavery. Anxiety about global warming. The prevalence of domestic violence. Racial bias against ethnic minorities in many public services. Unaccompanied children stuck in Calais. Environmental consequences, and the impact on developing countries, of current subsidies to farmers. The slaughter of raptors by game keepers on grouse moors. Currently, therefore, as well as historically, it is ill-informed to seek to confine the role of charities to practical work and ignore the enormous contribution of charities’ political activity to advancing charitable causes. Virtually every civil servant working on policy and every experienced Minister, every staff member of the Charity Commission and its Chair, and surely every active member of the House of Lords, know perfectly well that this is so. Perhaps some inexperienced SPADS do not.
  5. What is it that charities bring to the process of policy making, historically and today? Here’s a rough list:
  • Bringing the voice and interests of excluded people or minorities into the policy arena, urging a place for them and making the powerful listen
  • Bringing the knowledge, experience and realities of life of users to bear on policy makers who might otherwise be ignorant of them
  • Adding to the strength of a diverse value base for public policy, and complementing or challenging the dominance of commercial or statist perspectives
  • Bringing concentrated knowledge and expertise on behalf of charitable causes to counter the lobby groups of the self-interested and powerful
  • Breaking open the “group think” that can characterise Government or commercial elites, as demonstrated in the study by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe of great blunders of British policy-making
  • Acting as a training ground for participation in public life, as in the case of so many women learning confidence and participation in the Women’s Institutes, or as more recently demonstrated for example in the work of Elsdon and his colleagues from Nottingham.
  1. I believe such contributions are demonstrable and unromanticised. But it is important to recognise the limitations also. Charities have legitimacy, but it is not the same kind of legitimacy as elected representatives of the people. Each charity focuses on its own cause, so someone else has to strike the necessary balance between competing causes, and make arduous compromises that charities may not have to make. Different charities quite often differ from or contradict each other. It’s the IEA as well as Friends of the Earth and ASH, it’s the Countryside Alliance as well as the RSPCA. How could it be otherwise, since the sector is so diverse? Some charities can have their own group think, too. So it is a good thing that public policy is not left to charities alone, but it is nevertheless a core part of the role of many charities to make the polis a more inclusive, better informed and more generously motivated place than it would otherwise be, and in that way to be a force for good in public policy.
  2. From the point of view of charities, there are major reasons why, if they stuck to practical work and service delivery alone, many of them would feel they were not benefitting their cause as effectively as they could:
  • Because excluded or marginalised people cannot obtain their rights without entering and influencing the polis
  • Because external attitudes or events threaten your objects or your beneficiaries, so you have to respond by enlisting the support of the wider public, of state agencies or Parliament itself
  • Because current laws or state practices are often part of the problem for your beneficiaries, and if you are going to do more than scratch the surface you have to try to change them, particularly because the political class may not even understand what the problems are unless you tell them
  • Because sometimes the safety and security of vulnerable communities or people can only be won by the deliberate collective decisions of society, not by practical projects alone. To which we might add, the safety and security of all of us in the age of global warming.
  1. When Trustees are reviewing the effectiveness of their charity, they should therefore ask themselves whether they have the balance right between practical work and influencing others, in order to have the best long term impact. In all the cases cited earlier in this evidence, and many others, effective pursuit of charitable objects involves political activity.
  2. Against this background, it is regrettable that there have been efforts to curtail or discourage political activity by charities in the last few years. This effort has characterised some Conservative Ministers and MPs and the publicly appointed members of the Charity Commission. I am happy to give chapter and verse if requested. The conclusion from this evidence is that political activity in pursuit of charitable objectives is not only a right, more or less grudgingly acknowledged, but a public good. The political activity of charities is a positive gift to the polis. Without the contribution of civil society, the Man in Whitehall does not necessarily know best. The Minister and the elected representatives of the people do not necessarily know best. The SPAD certainly does not know best. They – and society collectively – need the diverse, sometimes even conflicting experience, knowledge, values and passion of the charity sector to be part of the collective decision making process, if society is to progress and public policy to be as inclusive and sound as it can be.





Andrew Purkis,

September 2016.



One thought on “Charities’ political activities: a force for good in public life

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s