There was a longstanding rule in charity law that political purposes cannot be charitable. Political purposes includes any purpose to change the law or government practice, here or abroad. For centuries judges would take a dim view of attempts to get around the rule. A political purpose cannot be for the good of the public because there is no way to judge it.
This was strictly enforced. A society for encouraging friendship with Sweden, which seems benevolent enough, was struck down because, as the judge observed, the court could not take the view that it is always for the public benefit to be friendly with Sweden – for all the court knew, it might benefit the public to have a war with Sweden.
That is not to say that charitable uses were very circumscribed. There have been some strange charities, and to go through the conditions placed upon village charities for educating boys or feeding the worthy is to realise how the past can indeed be a foreign country. Then there is the Baconian Society, which seeks to prove that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays and which is a charity because the course of its ridiculous quest involves scholarly research that might be of public benefit and might turn up genuine insights (if not the one they are looking for).
There may still be funds founded in the seventeenth century for buying Christians out of slavery on the Barbary Coast of Africa. That used to be seen as a quaint leftover, but these days the number of slaves held in the world makes such funds as relevant as when they were created.
The turbulent politics of the twentieth century pushed at the boundaries. Occasionally there would pop up an educational charity ‘to educate the public in the benefits of socialism’ – not charitable. (The socialists instead just took the mainstream educational institutions over and still use them to promote socialism anyway.) Wealthy charities started to play politics, because political individuals infiltrated their governing structures to do so, and all that cash donated by starry-eyed elderly ladies is a big draw for someone who wants to spend it on their personal campaign.
Spending charity funds outside the charitable purposes for which it was given, which includes spending on any political purpose, is a breach of trust and in effect is theft.
There is subtlety in the abuse: it is not called lobbying but advising government from a position of expertise. The line between advice and naked political advocacy is a fine one and the Charity Commission used to issue guidance on what is acceptable and what is naughty. One rule was that a charity may not get its supporters to lobby their MPs and may not send them pro forma letters to use. Well, I posed as an RSPCA supporter once and collected some lobbying packs which blatantly broke all those rules: the Charity Commission made excuses for them. I had seen the Commission falling like wolves on innocent, small charities for minor infractions, but here was a huge abuse of charity funds being winked at. It might not have been the wholesale corruption of the Commission, just a single junior clerk afraid to make a fuss about a powerful charity, but when a national body presented the same material higher up, the commission when into self-defence mode and it was again brushed off. Here it became clear that a very wealthy charity like the RSPCA could ignore the rules against politics with impunity, as if somehow close coworking had turned into regulatory capture.
All the rules changed under Tony Blair. The old rule against political purposes was nominally kept in place, but charitable purposes were now to include ‘the protection of human rights’. That can be anything.
Even the most virulently socio-political organisation can claim charitable status, their objects being to protect the human rights of their client group. Charitable status shuts the mouth of doubters – it is a state-sanctioned approbation of moral goodness and to condemn a charity it therefore a secular blasphemy.
While it shuts the mouth of critics, charitable status open the public purse. Grants are made to large, political charities for ‘research’, and it all goes to fill the swollen coffers, so that the government is using taxpayers’ money to pay for lobbying against itself. Our money is being used to fund damaging social and political campaigns.
You may look at the extremist campaigns run by political advocacy groups like Stonewall and Mermaids and wonder how on Earth they have the money to campaign – you and I are paying for them. We are paying for the circulation in schools, of mendacious propaganda, aimed to shape tender minds to political goals and out-and-out lies. If a fantasy writer had penned a tale of a small committee who hate maleness so much they deem it toxic and set about lopping the goolies off as many small boys as they can, it would be classified as a disgusting dystopian fantasy, and the idea that the state would fund it – that would be beyond Kafka at his most lurid. However that is happening, and the same group is using taxpayers’ money to take over the school curriculum and silence dissent. That group is a charity under Blair’s dispensation.
These are fake charities: not charitable under any logical definition but that which Blair’s law attributed, running not from the benevolence of donors to a public benefit, but from an abuse of taxpayers’ money. Further, any charity whose trustees or officials join with the motive of using donated money to run a political campaign, that is corruption.
The immediate thing must be to turn off the tap of taxpayers’ money to these fake charities. Find out how they get the grants; find which civil servants approved them, and show them the door.
Then try to bar propaganda from schools. It would help if there were sources of information to replace those from the lobbyists – I can moan, but those of us who just do that are complicit in not providing an alternative.
Next, reverse Blair’s deformation of charity rules and at a stroke revoke the charitable status of political bodies. Let charity mean what it means to most people.