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Speaking out about charities 19-10-06

Published in Real Issues No. 227, 19 October 2006

Charities expressed concern this week that under the Charities Act they could lose their charitable status if they become too vocal. The law has always allowed charities to engage in advocacy, as long as it is secondary to their main charitable purposes. The Charities Act preserves this position, and rightly so. As Green MP, Sue Bradford, points out, "Caring for the victims is essential work. But so is speaking out on their behalf...".

So what has changed, and why are charities concerned? From February 2007, the Act will require charities to register with the Charities Commission to claim certain benefits, such as tax privileges, and charities will face regular monitoring. If a charity does more than an incidental amount of advocacy, the Commission will not register it, or, if it is registered, will remove it from the register. But deciding when a charity passionately advancing a cause crosses the line will be an extremely difficult judgement for the Commission to make. This will mean that charities are likely to think twice before speaking out.

The government is attempting to encourage charitable giving through increased tax privileges announced this week. While this is a praiseworthy initiative, it would also mean that charities would have even more to lose from de-registration.

While de-registration could be more of a fear than a reality, it is likely the fear itself will have a dampening effect, and the public square needs an involved and vocal charitable sector. The Commission must be scrupulous in ensuring that the legitimate advocacy of charities is not at risk. Charities advocate in accord with their purpose, and on all sides of the debate. In doing so, they add immeasurably to the richness of public discourse.

Read the Charities Act here