Charities win power to fight for their aims

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Public Policy Editor

Charities were yesterday given greater freedom to campaign, under new guidelines on their permitted political activities released by the Charity Commissioners.

The commission has dropped proposals in last year's draft guidelines prohibiting charities from exposing MPs' voting records on a particular issue.

It has also abandoned what was interpreted as a blanket ban on providing supporters with pro forma letters with which to bombard MPs.

Instead the commission says charities can publicise the way MPs have voted, providing they do so "in a way which will enable its supporters or the public to seek to persuade those members or parties to change their position through well-founded, reasoned argument rather than merely through public pressure". And equally, pro forma letters can be used as long as the material "amounts to well-founded and reasoned argument".

The guidelines interpret existing law which states that charities cannot have political objectives. They may, however, advocate a change in the law or in public policy where it can "reasonably be expected" to help achieve their charitable objectives.

The new guidance is the culmination of a five-year process which began when Oxfam was found to be in breach of trust for campaigning for the maintenance of sanctions against South Africa in order to end apartheid. The Charity Commissioners ruled that lacked sufficiently clear links to the charity's aim of relieving poverty. It found the trustees to have acted in good faith, but to have been in breach of trust.

The new guidance, however, clarifies the right of charities to campaign rather than restricts it. "It is as concerned to prevent unnecessary self-censorship," Andrew Crook, the commission's head of policy, said. "Political objectives are clearly not permitted, but political activities in pursuit of charitable objectives are, so long as they are based on well-reasoned argument and are clearly connected to the charity's purpose."

Campaigns which can only achieve their objective by changes in the law are denied charitable status - the Abortion Law Reform Association, for example, or the National Anti-Vivisection Society. But within their aims, charities may use political activity to further them, although they must stop short of support for a political party. They can support solutions that political parties advocated, provided they make plain that their views are independent of the party. "It is hard to imagine a situation in which those whose task it is to legislate and make provision for the basic needs of modern society could do so effectively without a contribution from charities," Richard Fries, the Chief Charity Commissioner, said.

Big charities such as Oxfam and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations welcomed the revised guidance, Stuart Etherington, NCVO's chief executive, saying they gave "a clear and positive lead". Although some technical points needed clarifying, there was much greater clarity now about what charities could and could not do.

Mr Fries conceded that the guidance would still be subject to interpretation in individual cases. But the commission wants a new co-operative approach in which charities will be encouraged to consult it if they have doubts.

In the final analysis, the commission can make trustees repay funds spent on improper activities.