Top writers divided by group's plan to become a charity

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The Independent Culture

The distinguished literary society Pen, whose members include many of Britain's leading writers, faces a damaging split over plans to pursue charitable status.

Pen's executive, led by the biographer Victoria Glendinning and the writer Blake Morrison, is anxious to improve its financial position by becoming a charity. Otherwise, it may go broke in the next 18 months.

But a sub-committee of members who support writers who are persecuted or imprisoned in countries from Cuba to Iran fear their capacity to lobby repressive regimes on issues such as freedom of expression might be jeopardised by the restrictions on charities' political work.

There are concerns that the pressing financial crisis is forcing the measure through without proper consultation with the full membership, which includes Harold Pinter, Margaret Drabble, Tom Stoppard, Ben Okri and A S Byatt.

A consultation paper is to be sent to Pen's 1,000 members in the next week with plans for a vote at the annual general meeting on 11 December on whether to proceed.

Joan Smith, the columnist and novelist who chairs the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), said yesterday that most of her group, which includes Terence Blacker and Lisa Appignanesi, wanted legal advice.

They fear that changes to charity law allowing charities to organise some political activities are not sufficient to protect its work. If so, Pen might be forced to split, leaving the WiPC without the funds it needs to campaign.

Smith said: "We're not convinced the law has changed enough to allow us to continue to do our work. We just want this process slowed down and for the membership to get all the independent advice it will need."

Maureen Freely, another writer on the committee, said she was unclear about the potential impact and wanted written legal opinion. "I don't want this to go through without all of us looking at it very carefully," she said.

"I'm really distressed to see in certain quarters of Pen a lack of respect for transparent democratic procedure. We really can't preach democracy unless we practise it."

Blake Morrison, the vice-president of the executive committee, said nobody on the executive would do anything to put at risk the work of the prisons committee. The consultation paper suggested the arguments in favour of becoming a charity - mainly, the tax benefits - appeared to outweigh the disadvantages.

"I completely understand why the WiPC, which is the most political part of the organisation, might be worried. But the evidence seems to be that they would not be compromised in any way," he said.

"Their work is the flagship of English Pen and we want to strengthen their work, if anything. Nobody in the executive would allow anything to happen which would expose the work of the WiPC. But it's tough out there trying to get money and it does seem to us as if this is the way forward."

There was no immediate financial difficulty thanks to a gala dinner and events such as its annual quiz, to be hosted by Clive James on Monday.