As I have written previously in this space, the tension between Politics and Charities is at something of a peak following the enaction of the Lobbying Bill in January and recent challenges to charitable impartiality by Conservative MPs or their staff in the case of at least 2 charities. Since then another MP, Charlie Elphicke has been complaining about the IPPR and his view that it leans to the left. However there are some charities with strong links to high profile Politicians of all parties and there is a real danger that the whole sector could become mired in confusion and suspicion unless some sense of perspective is achieved, particularly by the Politicians themselves. At greatest risk are those who benefit from such charities and the good will of those who donate time or money to these good causes, let alone the people who work for the charities concerned. Too many cries of foul, or suspicions of collusion with Political decision making is bound to create concerns.
Several central Government or local Government departments have unwisely or worse set up charities when good work they are involved in can be separated out and given charitable status. This has the advantage of appearing to reduce the size of the department concerned and may allow the work of the ‘charity’ to attract external funding, but it risks damaging the reputation of the whole charitable sector. In many cases the control of these organisations remains close to the ceding agency, questioning if they are truly Independent. Even where the charity is unquestionably an organisation with sound charitable objectives, and there is no doubt about its merits, too close an alignment with political leaders must create concerns for other similarly important charities who struggle to attract the same level of interest by decision makers. One such charity “Parents & Abducted Children Together” was founded by Catherine Meyer who is the wife of Sir Christopher Meyer and Treasurer of the Conservative Party. She is also the chief executive of the charity and her husband is one of the Trustees. Few charities have the contacts to hold events at the House of Lords with Cabinet Ministers in attendance. This does not in any way diminish their good work, any more than these easy wins enhance the good work of PACT, but if a charity depends on donations or publicity to achieve its objectives, such things can make a huge difference. It is vital that our politicians do not focus their attention on certain pet projects, as easy as that is to do.
This week an issue has arisen in the context of a charity that has been far too closely linked to one of our leading Politicians. David Cameron has had an on-off relationship with the concept of the Big Society, it seems to depend on how popular the concept is with others that determines whether he mentions it at all. However when he was promoting the concept at the beginning of his Premiership, the Big Society Network was launched at No 10 Downing Street on 13th July. The Charity (Society Network Foundation) which was subsequently set up to enable the BSN to operate was set up as a company a month after the launch, and registered as charity nearly a year later. It has been the recipient of funding from a number of sources including a large grant of almost £1M from the Big Lottery Fund. The news this week is that the final quarter of this grant will not be paid over to the charity, because it has failed to deliver on its outcomes must be of concern to all connected with the charity. However it appears from their website that there are now only two Trustees, down from 4 that are still listed by the Charity Commission. Two people are fewer than the regulator recommends, and such a small number is a poor reflection of the idea of a Big Society and Volunteering which was at the heart of the Grant concerned. Certainly they are not a strong enough group to make decisions on £1M of public money in my opinion.
It is unlikely that the work of the BSN will be raised in this mornings Prime Minister Questions, with such vital issues on everyone’s newspapers as disgraced journalists and Mr Juncker. However perhaps on a quieter week things would be different. Charities should not usually be the subject of PMQs but as this charity appears unwilling to answer questions put to it by journalists and the Prime Minister might actually know what has been going on, perhaps a question to him would be appropriate!