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Latest 17 September 2021

Don’t let Government muzzle charities

Last weekend, the then Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden, announced his intention to muzzle the third sector. In his blog about the process for appointing a new Chair of the Charity Commission – the Government’s regulator of charities – he complained about “a worrying trend in some charities that appear to have been hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials”. He said the Chair will be selected based on how they “rebalance” charities away from that agenda. And that Ministers will only appoint someone who does this.

One might assume from this that the previous Chair was a radical, activist earth-mother? Well… not exactly. The previous Chair was the former Tory Leader in the House of Lords. She was appointed contrary to the unanimous wishes of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, which raised understandable concerns about her lack of independence.

But apparently Government wants even more political influence. 

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It’s a chilling thought. What would a politically motivated regulator mean for food banks who push back against policies that mean people don’t have enough to eat? What would it mean for a housing charity which challenges legislation that leaves people without a roof over their head?

What about charities that campaign against Government policies that could do untold damage by baking in racial injustice or poverty? Will these fit with the Government’s views? 

Good Law Project is well aware from actual cases that these are not idle speculations. 

Together, through our taxes, we subsidise the activities of charities to the tune of £2bn a year. We give them this relief because they exist for “public benefit– various types of do-gooding which Parliament wants to encourage in the Charities Act.

These things are not the same as pushing the political agenda of the Government of the day. You don’t get charitable tax relief if your activities are “political” – a term which the Charity Commission defines as including “furthering the interests of a particular political party.” This need for charities to stand outside party politics is also embedded in legislation made by Parliament: for example, the Charity Commission should not be subject to direction by the Secretary of State. 

We don’t think it’s the Charity Commission’s job to muzzle or ‘cancel’ charities that want to tell the truth about Britain’s past. But Ministers want to turn Charity law on its head. Charities that help their political agenda will be left alone and charities that resist it will be punished. 

Our public institutions exist to serve the public good – not the political whims of passing Governments. Anyone accepting an appointment following this flawed process should be very clear – we believe it is unlawful and will ask for it to be quashed.

You can read our letter to Oliver Dowden’s successor, Nadine Dorries, that formally starts the judicial review process here

If you are in a position to do so, you can support the legal challenge here.