Fox hunt The RSPCA in trouble with the Tories for campaigning against fox hunting.

Recent Tory battles with individual charities add up to an unprecedented attack on civil society, argues Dulcinea Wilkes

In October 2015, the finance director of Oxfam, Bob Humphreys, marked his retirement by warning that we facea closing down of civil society more usually expected “in the context of more fragile states overseas” than in Western democracies. It may not be from a particularly radical source, but this warning is one to take seriously.

For socialists, there are many problems with charitable giving as a model for the provision of public services. We don’t want to have to rely on the benevolence of rich individuals for services that should be everyone’s right. The charitable sector has also provided cover for public sector cuts: local council services can be slashed more easily if there are charities to which some sort of service can be outsourced. Hence the current debate about food banks. The numbers of referrals to food banks are so great that they are becoming part of the welfare system rather than a temporary, last resort. This of course allows benefits to be cut and individuals to be sanctioned without the bad publicity that large numbers actually starving to death as a result would engender.

Despite these concerns, however, it is also true that many charities do vital work, not only in providing services but in campaigning. Charities which get their money from public fundraising, and still more for those which live off endowments, have financial independence from government and the private sector and can use that independence to speak truth to power. What we are seeing now is power hitting back.

Campaigning as political lobbying

The first salvo was the lobbying bill of 2013, which attempted to make charities register with the Electoral Commission if they were campaigning on anything which could be considered political. The point, of course, was to deter charities from involvement in ‘politics’, which was defined sufficiently widely, and sufficiently vaguely, to have a significant and chilling effect on the sector. In the event, sustained campaigning by a number of charity groups got registered charities largely removed from the scope of the act, although unregistered campaigning groups are still caught by it. The government’s partial climbdown over this bill has not, however, won the sector much of a reprieve.

The implied justification for treating charities who campaign as if they were political parties was that charities should not be campaigning at all. They should be seen, when doing charitable work, but definitely not heard. Thus in November 2014, a Tory MP, Conor Burns, complained to the Charity Commission about Oxfam after they sent out a tweet linking benefit cuts to poverty. The RSPCA has also been under sustained attack for taking people breaking the law by foxhunting to court, weathering successive complaints to the Charity Commission for its ‘political’ behaviour.

The Tories’ general election victory in May seems to have given the campaign against campaigning charities additional impetus. Tim Parrish MP, the Tory chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in Parliament, launched a formal inquiry into the RSPCA in September 2015. This was after some months of quite astonishing briefing against the charity by civil servants in the Department for the Environment, who were telling the Telegraph in June that it was ‘“eroding its credibility” by prioritising contentious political campaigns over animal welfare’, and threatening that ‘it risks losing public support once and for all unless it reforms.’

The attacks on the RSPCA were clearly intended to send the message that charities had better not be vocal against issues close to Tory hearts. This was not restricted to the domestic hot button causes. Being on the opposing side of arguments about foreign policy is also clearly illegitimate, as demonstrated by the case of Cage and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT).

Charities and the ‘national interest’

Between 2011 and 2014, JRCT gave Cage around £300,000 for their work on combating human rights abuses. This funding hit the headlines in February 2015 as part of the press furore about Mohammed Emwazi, who contacted Cage in 2010, well before his metamorphosis into Jihadi John, for help in dealing with harassment by the security services. JRCT, to their credit, responded by standing by their grantees, but were forced by the Charity Commission to promise never to fund Cage again. Cage and JRCT took this to judicial review in October this year, which ended with the Charity Commission backing down. The result of the review was a relief to Cage, which had been operating without a bank account for the previous 18 months, but the case was also worrying for what it revealed about how the Charity Commission had arrived at its position.

It turned out that William Shawcross, the Tory chair of the Commission, had decided that Cage should be ineligible for any charity funding after spending time with US secret service agents, who convinced him that it was a “jihadist front”. Given that US methods of dealing with charitable activities of which they disapprove appear to include airstrikes, JRCT could consider that it got off lightly. Shawcross’ email correspondence with other Commission board members concluded that no charities should be permitted to fund organisations which were ‘largely odious’. Shawcross himself wrote that ‘charities surely cannot fund bodies that are acting against the national interest’.

This is a particularly chilling position for the head of the body which regulates charities to take. If it were seriously applied,  it would prevent any charity from campaigning against government policies, in even the most tangential fashion, from funding other groups that do, or from highlighting human rights abuses committed by UK allies. It would shut down an entire avenue for scrutiny and criticism of government policy. It’s also worth noting that by moving beyond the already half-established formula that charities should not be political, the formula leaves room for those charities which can be relied upon to be political in the right way. It is notable that the Royal British Legion, for example, is able to run decidedly militaristic campaigns without any of the criticism for its political stance levelled at JRCT, RSPCA or Oxfam.

The charitable sector is used to being viewed as uncontroversial. As Humphreys commented, charities used to believe that “their motives and operations were almost above question”. They aren’t, by and large, organisations used to operating in an atmosphere of organised governmental hostility, meaning that the attacks on “political” activity may well have the desired, constraining effect. Charity leaders were recently advised that in view of the Cage case, they should simply stop funding any organisation which wasn’t itself a registered charity. If charities will not fight for themselves, however, then we may have to do it for them. It’s not a perfect sector, but our democracy would be weaker without it.