Tin-rattlers in need of a shake-up

Many charities are rich, relatively unaccountable and muddled in their aims. Who will dare to take them on?
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The Independent Online
Every taxpayer donates to every charity whether they like it or not, for tax exemption is simply state subsidy by another name. And yet charities are feebly policed under vague and woolly legislation. Charity Commissioners have remarkably little authority to ensure that charities actually do anything that is clearly beneficial.

With an annual income of pounds 10bn, plus pounds 25bn assets, many of us would never willingly give to many of them (Eton College, the Church of England?) so why does the Government do it on our behalf? But they do.

The story of the RSPCA exemplifies the strange status of these immensely rich organisations. Locally and centrally it has reserves of an estimated pounds 100m and an income of some pounds 48m a year - all to do something charity law did not originally intend: to care for animals, not people.

A long-standing controversy about the RSPCA surfaced again last week. The charity was warned by its own lawyers that one of its campaigns (against the use of chimpanzees in medical experiments in Holland) took them beyond the curious set of laws under which they operate. The Charity Commissioners have just sent the society a timid warning shot, "seeking clarification" on complaints raised by Sir David Steel of the Countryside Movement, among others.

The society has lost nearly half its membership over recent years. Both sides blame the other for this. In one corner is the animal rights lobby (though wisely they do not use that term). On the other side are those who think that the RSPCA should stick to welfare and rescuing pets in peril, on which it spends the bulk of its money. The rights lot think the fusty conservatism of the society has driven away members to join more radical groups such as the anti-vivisectionists and Compassion in World Farming, which (not being charities) are free of all campaigning constraint. The welfare lot think good old-fashioned "caring country people" have been driven away by the anti-hunting, anti-fishing, anti-farming, vegetarian tone of recent years.

Both sides accuse the other of entryism, both with some justification. Recently the British Field Sports Society and its allies have been calling upon members to join the RSPCA to vote out the animal rightists on the council. On the other side, over the years there have been complaints about animal liberationists infiltrating the society.

But who is an entryist? It all depends where the true heart and soul of the society really lies. The council member with the second-highest number of votes is Angela Walder, a vigorous vegan, who from her Arcadian Cattery on the Isle of Sheppey hurls her defiance: "To hell with the Charity Commissioners!" she cries with glee. She wants to continue campaigning on Dutch chimpanzees, whatever the state of the law. She was thrown out in 1988 for bringing the society into disrepute, but now she is voted back and chairs the scientific and technical committee. Letting in anyone pro-hunting, she says, would be "like letting paedophiles into the NSPCC".

Does all this sound familiar? To veterans of the bad old days of the Labour Party, for animal rights read democratic socialism, and there you have it.

Ideologically, the RSPCA has a deep problem, for there is no clear dividing line between where "welfare" ends and "rights" begins. Prosecuting people who are wantonly cruel to pets is the easy bit. But if you happen to be a vegan, then preventing cruelty includes not killing animals at all. Angela Walder, for instance, grumbles that she was called in the other day to help a woman who was having trouble bottle-feeding a pet lamb she had been given. "She was in tears, really upset that it might die. Then I asked her what that smell was in the kitchen, and she said it was a leg of lamb for their Sunday lunch!"

The 170-year-old RSPCA teeters along a tightrope of the exceedingly baffling charity laws, which is why it now refers everything to the Commission for their opinion. To be registered, a charity must serve one of four purposes: religion, education, the benefit of the community or the relief of poverty. These days, both religion and education are dubious beneficiaries of the state's purse; however, note that there is no mention of benefiting animals. So how did the RSPCA ever get registered?

Richard Fries, Chief Charity Commissioner, tries to explain, but it sounds more like theology than law: "Animals are not a charitable cause per se," he says. "But if treating animals well contributes to the ennobling and uplifting of human nature, then that is a charitable function." Ah, so in law the money someone puts in the tin is not for the battered cat but for the soul of the giver?

So in what ways may the RSPCA set about ennobling us? "They may take action on behalf of animals, provided it does not conflict with the interests of human beings since humans always come first in charity law." So they cannot campaign against the use of chimpanzees in Dutch Aids experiments designed to save humans - they can only campaign for the chimpanzees to be kept in better conditions. The moderate welfare lobby are now trying to claim that any animal rights perspective also breaches charity law, as it is not for human benefit.

At this point the whole thing seems so daft that it illuminates the nonsense at the heart of charity law. They are not allowed to campaign politically, but what is "political"? Everything that matters is political and so the old concept of "charity" is now dead. These are big businesses with baggy rules, run by amateur boards with a lot of relatively unaccountable money swashing about in them. Many are riddled with fundamental contradictions about their purpose. Those charities that do social work now find their relationship with government so close that they are virtually agencies of the state.

Putting a coin in the tin, we no longer know what we are giving for or to whom, let alone why our taxes should end up as hidden subsidies for strange religions or animal groups. The Government once promised reform, but backed off in fear of these mighty vested interests: last month a new law brought only a minor tightening up of account-keeping. The charitable impulse remains strong but the whole creaking edifice needs a new set of guiding principles. Will any political party be brave enough?