The Charity Commission last week (7 December) issued an alert to charitable think tanks, to remind trustees of their legal obligations and duties to retain balance and neutrality in their research work and publications.
The alert, entitled Section 15(2) Advice and Guidance under the Charities Act 2011 – issued to charitable think tanks, December 2018, reinforces the Commission’s views on what is, and is not acceptable in any research published or other activity undertaken, such as seminars, and web articles, stating that all outputs must be balanced, neutral and objective, and allow individuals to form their own views.
It also says that outputs should not seek to promote a specific policy unless it is one that furthers the educational purposes of the charity, and should not seek to achieve a political outcome or be such that they could be used as a political vehicle.
The alert includes guidance to help trustees ensure that this is always the case, with checklists to use to ensure the right steps are in place to avoid issues.
The alert was issued along with a letter from Helen Stephenson, Charity Commission Chief Executive. In it, she says:
“We all have a collective responsibility for ensuring that the concept of charity survives into future generations, and to enable charities to maximise the good they do. Breaches of charity law and uncharitable behaviour, particularly by one charity towards another, moves us further away from that shared objective.
“I have attached formal advice that is being issued under Section 15(2) of the Charities Act 2011. I expect you to draw this to the attention of all trustees in order to consider it carefully, including discussing it at a future board meeting, to ensure compliance with charity law. Ignoring such advice and future breaches of charity law could be deemed as misconduct or mismanagement and will be assessed accordingly.
“This advice does not set any new requirements for charitable think tanks. It is a reminder of duties that you should already understand. It is rare that we provide further advice under s15(2) of the CA2011 in this way to a group of charities, but such is our concern about the activities of charities across this sub-sector that we have felt it necessary on this occasion.”
The alert follows an order by the Commission just last month to The Institute of Economic Affairs, asking it to remove a Brexit-related statement from its site on the grounds that it did not feel it was sufficiently balanced.
In a statement published on its site, Neil Record, Chairman of the IEA Board of Trustees, expressed his concern about the Commission’s intervention, saying:
“The Charity Commission has requested that the IEA remove the publication ‘Plan A+: Creating a prosperous post-Brexit’ UK from our website and cease its promotion. The Commission’s concerns do not relate to any questions of accuracy. The IEA board of trustees has agreed to comply with this request.
“Nevertheless, IEA trustees are concerned about the Charity Commission’s interventions. We believe it is increasingly unclear what charitable think tank activity is acceptable, and what is not. A worrying precedent is in the process of being set: research papers – and their launches – which put forward firm policy proposals may now fall outside the parameters of what the Charity Commission considers acceptable activity.
“To that end, IEA trustees are now looking to set up a non-charitable arm of the IEA – as has previously been done by a range of other charities. We look forward to working with the Charity Commission in making such changes.”
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