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Case update 16 May 2024

Charity Commission faces formal complaint over handling of rightwing think-tank

The charities regulator ripped up its guidance and brushed off a complaint over the Institute of Economic Affairs in just 12 days. So we’re supporting a formal complaint over this irrational decision.

After racing to clear the Institute of Economic Affairs in less than two weeks, the Charity Commission is facing a formal complaint, drafted by a King’s Counsel and specialist charity lawyer, over its kid gloves handling of the radical rightwing think-tank.

In March, we helped a cross-party group of MPs and a former member of the commission’s board file an initial complaint, arguing that the institute is failing to comply with its duties as an educational charity.

Despite regulations which state that charities should “engage equally with all major political parties”, and that research must avoid presenting “biased and selective information in support of a preconceived point of view”, the institute promotes extreme views on the climate crisis and is widely seen as the inspiration for Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s infamous mini-budget.

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The Charity Commission took just 12 days to dismiss this complaint, announcing that guidance we cited had been withdrawn the day after we got in touch.

Now we’re supporting Alyn Smith MP, Siân Berry AM and former Charity Commission board member Dr Andrew Purkis as they launch a new complaint over the commission’s decision. The complaint is made under its formal process and the commission must respond in full within 30 days. The complaint is a necessary precondition to formal legal action in the High Court.  

Evidence that the Institute of Economic Affairs has been acting outside its charitable purposes for years is so strong that we argue it’s irrational for the Charity Commission to conclude there is no cause for concern. We say the commission also fails to take account of the institute’s poor regulatory history and offers no explanation for its confidence that the think-tank’s trustees will comply with their duties under charity law in the future.

While we’re waiting to hear from the commission, we’re already preparing the ground for legal action if we’re not satisfied they’ve met their obligations.

This new complaint comes after the Charity Commission finally responded to a different complaint over another rightwing think-tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

In October 2022 we supported three MPs – Caroline Lucas, Clive Lewis and Layla Moran – to launch a complaint about multiple apparent breaches of charity law by this climate denial group. The foundation has spent several hundred thousand pounds on one-sided research which downplays the climate emergency and has also invested in a non-charitable subsidiary, Net Zero Watch, which pursues the same agenda.

After repeated requests for updates from the commission on their complaint, last month the MPs told them the delay was contributing to an unlawful distortion of the public debate around the climate crisis.

Faced with this legal pressure, the Charity Commission has now promised to publish a report.

The commission’s handling of complaints against both the Global Warming Policy Foundation and the Institute of Economic Affairs shows it’s happy to bend the rules, leaving organisations that push extreme political agendas free to benefit from the generous tax breaks charitable status affords.

It’s time for the regulator to uphold its duties and make sure charities are run for the benefit of the public, rather than in the interests of the anonymous groups who bankroll them.