OPINION: Having told charities to ‘stick to the knitting’ and keep out of politics, the Government has been actively making political appointments to the Charity Commission. And if this week’s debacle over the sleazy goings-on at the Presidents Club reveal nothing else, they show charity is often a smokescreen for other less savoury activities, including political power play, writes Miles King.
It’s still a bit of a mystery why the Financial Times decided to run an investigation into the sleazy goings-on at the Presidents Club. This charity has raised millions for other charities, mostly to help children. Its fundraising modus operandi was to splash vast amounts of money on a lavish men-only ball, charge thousands for tickets, and raise more money with an auction of promises.
Should anyone be that surprised about the revelations? Some journalists have suggested that it was an ‘open secret’, and not newsworthy at all. But the ramifications continue to grow.
Charity chair David Meller has resigned from a couple of posts including a senior director’s role at the Department for Education, and is “taking a leave of absence” from his role as chair of a group of Academy schools. Meller is a generous donor to Tory party coffers, and supported Michael Gove’s leadership campaign in 2016. Co-organiser of the ball, Bruce Ritchie is London’s wealthiest private landlord and an even bigger Tory donor.
Was it simply a case of pure altruistic philanthropy driving these immensely wealthy people to give so much to charity, or to set up Academy chains named after them, as Meller did? Or were there more mundane motives?
Obviously bringing together captains of industry, media moguls, multi-millionaire developers and so on is good for creating new business opportunities – the cross-fertilization effect. Philanthropy is also an established route to an honour, the gaining of gongs (Meller got a CBE in December) and even peerages, like Lord Ashcroft making it difficult, perhaps, to separate out philanthropic giving (to charities) from political giving (to the Conservative Party).
Perhaps there’s also another motive: Meller, like Natural England chair Andrew Sells, and many others, have been involved with a group of free-market supporting Think Tanks, such as Policy Exchange, the Centre for Social Justice, the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs. They are running a political project, to shrink the state. Think about plans to privatise the NHS – this has already happened to prisons, the probation services, the railways etc etc. It’s almost as though there is a concerted effort to take over the remaining public bodies and re-orient them to face, and serve, the market.
This is clearly illustrated by a regular column on the unofficial Conservative party social media collective known as Conservative Home (funded by Tory donor Lord Ashcroft.) In the “public appointments” column, new opportunities for Tory activists to take on significant roles in the public sphere are listed. This has created what some call “the Quangocracy” whereby top donors to the Tory Party are handed sinecures on public boards – running everything from the National Gallery to the Housing Ombudsman.
One such role was chair of the Charity Commission, the body set up to regulate the charity sector. Chair for the last six year, William Shawcross, was widely considered to be a political appointment, Shawcross having previously sat on the council of the neo-conservative “Think Tank” the Henry Jackson Society. And during his tenure, charities which deliver public benefit by seeking to influence Government policy have been singled out for criticism. Shawcross and other Charity Commission board members have been vocal in attacking the very notion of “small p” political action by charities, which is perfectly legal and often essential if charities are to properly serve the purposes for which they were established. Government action has included introducing gagging clauses into Government contracts with charities (the so-called sock puppet clause), and a gagging order which applies to all charities in the run up to elections.
One of Shawcross’ appointments to the Charity Commision Board, Gwythian Prins of the private University of Buckingham, wrote an essay calling for the UK to leave the EU, at the same time as the Charity Commission was telling charities they had to remain neutral in the Referendum, regardless of the results’ impact on their beneficiaries. Prins also argued that charities should stay away from politics and “stick to the knitting”, a phrase repeated by the then Charities Minister. (Prins also sits on the academic advisory council of the climate-change deniers at the Global Warming Policy Foundation.) Now Shawcross’ term has come to an end, the Government has been attempting to install former charities Minister Rob Wilson as its new chair. Meanwhile former Charity Commission legal director Kenneth Dibble has been appointed to the Charity Commission board.
The Charity Commission is supposed to oversee all charities and ensure that they operate to a set of pretty strict rules on governance designed to make sure that charities operate not only within the law, but to the highest set of ethical standards. As a number of commentators have pointed out, what sort of messages about charity governance are these appointments sending to Charity Trustees?
A conflict arises.
On the one hand something like the President’s Ball could be seen as charity fundraising being used as a smokescreen for political influence-peddling. On the other hand, the Government is directly, and via the Charity Commission, pressuring charities to stop being political whilst at the same time installing political appointees to run the very regulator which is supposed to operate independently, dispassionately, and fairly.
Remember, charities are legally bound only to work to create public benefit.
What would happen, I wonder, if political parties were bound by the same rules?
Read the FT article in full here.
Miles King is an Ecologist, founder of People Need Nature and a regular columnist for Lush Times. Follow him on Twitter @Milesking10