The fact that charities may not be “political” strikes a chord with the public, at least in the sense that, particularly in an age when politics is not held in high esteem, people expect charities to steer clear of party politics. But the role of charities in championing their cause, in advocating the interests for which they stand, is well established.
Nineteenth century philanthropists like Thomas Barnado were campaigners. And the advocacy role of charities has been more pronounced since the Second World War, perhaps reflecting the change of balance between state and charity – the more the state committed itself to delivering services and maintaining standards, the more the voluntary sector saw itself cast in the role of holding government to account.
Charity law had difficulty in keeping pace with the role of charities as campaigning bodies. It is perhaps significant that it was Oxfam, a wartime creation of committed individuals, that should fall foul of the Charity Commission for overstepping the line of political campaigning – over the line it took in relation to Nicaragua, among other places. Students’ Unions themselves were subject to legal problems in the 80’s- cases led both to Students’ Unions being defined as charities, and the activities that could be engaged in clarified and restricted as a result.
All of this led to a prolonged and somewhat agonised reappraisal of the interpretation of the law, out of which came new guidance from the Commission which has won the support of the wider sector and the political process.
In essence, it holds that charities may campaign on behalf of their interests provided they do so on a well-informed responsible basis. Thus, charities may engage in public discussion of government policies in their sphere of activity on the basis of their knowledge and experience. This has enabled charities such as RSPCA and Shelter, not to mention Oxfam, to campaign vigorously on, in these cases, hunting, homelessness and third world debt. It is important that charities should not be politically emasculated by the law – their contribution to informed public debate about important issues of public policy is an essential element in a healthy democracy.
But charity law is still restrictive in that the current guidelines depend on the distinction between a charity’s purposes and the activities which it undertakes to fulfil them. The activities may be political, its purposes not. And charity law defines political purposes very widely, to cover purposes directed at changing the law or even government policy.
This doctrine upheld (in the Amnesty case) as recently as 1982 derives from the fact that charities are, in law, trusts whose purpose must be capable of being enforced by the courts. The courts regard the political sphere as beyond their competence, issues of changing the law as outside their remit. Thus the basis of charity law still excuses a distorting effect on modern charity.
And we must also be careful to ensure that where Students’ Unions fund or arrange debate, discussion or even political activity, that we do not stamp down on such work as automatically being “ultra vires”. The courts, and the guidance, have been clear- that often such work is inherently educational and the education of students at a University or College is the very basis upon which we are able to claim charitable status. The line between educational and direct “politicking” will always be in question- but one that both NUS and Students’ Unions should always seek to be in the radical side of.